Minus Ryan Johansen, Predators find a way to beat Ducks
Predators centre Colin Wilson (centre) celebrates with teammates Ryan Ellis (left) and Colton Sissons after Wilson scored against the Ducks during the second period of Game 5 in the NHL's Western Conference final in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday, May 20, 2017. (Chris Carlson/AP Photo)
We get it. These are the playoffs. You can’t find one of the four teams left standing that isn’t missing a significant player or running out of ice at this time of year.
But the Western Conference final is taking the battle of attrition to another level. Forget last goal wins. It’s been more like last man standing.
Prior to Game 5, Nashville was without it’s captain and it’s No. 1 centre. Anaheim was missing its leading goal-scorer and big-name trade deadline rental. And then the game started and the Ducks lost their starting goalie after the first period.
With so much star power on the shelf, it wasn’t surprising that a lesser-light would stand up and take advantage of the opportunity. That was what happened, as Pontus Aberg, a player who had spent all but 15 games of the regular season in the minors, played the unlikely hero in Nashville’s 3-1 win against Anaheim.
“I just tried to bring my game out there,” said Aberg. “Like you said, we were missing two pretty big players out there. I felt pretty good.”
It was Aberg’s first goal. And like so many others, he nearly missed the opportunity because of an injury. Moments before he made a Bobby Orr-like leap and scored the biggest goal of his career, the 23-year-old had lost a tooth after being driven face-first onto the ice.
A concussion spotter pulled Aberg from the game. But he was a little late in the assessment, leaving Aberg on the ice for one more crucial shift.
“I didn’t expect that,” Aberg, who returned to the game later in the period, said of getting pulled. “I lost my tooth, but it didn’t hurt me.”
The Predators now head home with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series that continues in Nashville on Monday. But if the injuries keep mounting, there won’t be enough players remaining to finish this up.
Heading into the game, the question was whether the Predators could win without Ryan Johansen, who had undergone surgery after getting hurt in the previous game. But as the day wore on, the injuries kept mounting, with Nashville’s Mike Fisher and Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell also missing the game.
Things reached a critical peak when Ducks goalie John Gibson was stripped of the puck behind the net in the first period and fell awkwardly when rushing back to his net. Though he finished the period, backup goalie Jonathan Bernier began the second period.
In the end, Nashville’s depth was better than Anaheim’s.
“That’s what you need to win in the playoffs and to win in professional sports,” Nashville’s P.K. Subban said of the team’s depth. “We have a solid team and that includes depth. (Aberg’s) a guy who in my opinion could have been playing on our team all year, but we have so much and so much experience … that it didn’t happen.”
Though the injuries obviously affected both teams’ line-ups, it’s difficult to say who was at a bigger disadvantage. Not that anyone was making excuses. As Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said, “It’s playoff hockey. You look at their line-up, they’re depleted as well.”
Based on how physical Game 5 was, the Predators and Ducks were lucky they didn’t lose any more players.
The longer this series goes, the nastier it is getting. Saturday night was not for the faint of heart, as Anaheim’s Josh Manson caught player after player with big after big hit, and Nashville’s Filip Forsberg wielded his stick around like it was a sword. It seemed like everyone on the ice was holding a grudge, if not a death wish.
In between all the hits, the slashes and the post-whistle scrums, the teams found time to score a couple of goals.
The Ducks took a 1-0 lead when they caught the Predators with their fourth line out against Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg line. Anaheim took advantage of the mis-match, with Silfverberg feeding defenceman Brandon Montour for a one-timer and Chris Wagner sliding in the rebound.
But as the Predators have shown throughout this series, this is a team that gets better and better as the game wears on.
With 40.3 seconds remaining in the second period, the Predators tied the game on a power play goal from Colin Wilson. In the third period, Nashville kept pouring it on. Once again, Filip Forsberg, who leads the team with seven goals and overtook Johansen with 14 points, was at the centre of it.
It was Forsberg who’s shot hit Bernier and kicked out to Aberg who drove to the net and made it 2-1. The Predators put the game out of reach with an empty-netter from Austin Watson.
“I didn’t think our compete level was where it needed to be,” said Getzlaf. “They came out and worked harder than us in the second and third period, and that made the difference in the hockey game.”