Published April 23, 2011
The Nashville Predators are in position to take the biggest step in franchise history.
The team best known for being just good enough to make the playoffs but go no further can advance to its first Western Conference semifinals with a win over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 Sunday.
Nashville grabbed a 3-2 lead in this first-round series in dramatic fashion Friday night in Anaheim, rallying for a 4-3 overtime win. It was the Predators' first victory in a Game 5, their first postseason OT win and their first time to win three games in a series.
Just the kind of thrilling finish that can swing the momentum in a series for good.
"The goal is to go home and finish it off at home," Nashville forward Joel Ward said. "We definitely don't want to get back on a four-hour flight to California."
Jerred Smithson won the game with his overtime goal, and he said the Predators are not done yet.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but we have put ourselves in a good position," Smithson said. "We haven't played our best hockey yet, but we will enjoy this, put it behind us, and go to work back home."
The Ducks are trying to regroup and avoid losing their third first-round series in seven appearances. They last went out in six games to Dallas in 2008 and were swept by Detroit in 1999. It won't be easy after a heartbreaking loss, especially after Bobby Ryan's dazzling goal in the third period gave the Ducks a 2-1 lead they couldn't hold.
"Our team's got a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys that have been through this situation that can keep us on an even keel," Ryan said. "We've got to be ready for Sunday, that's all we can do."
Anaheim returns to Nashville with the confidence from a 6-3 win in Game 4 on Wednesday night, but the Ducks also have to get Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne going again after the big scoring trio was shut out at home. Selanne did have an amazing assist, but that was the lone point for a trio that had combined for 19 points through the first four games.
Selanne said there's a reason series go seven games.
"You never know in this game, that's why it's a beauty. So I guess we're going to learn something and move on. Sunday is going to be a new opportunity," Selanne said.
That sounds good, but the Bridgestone Arena was raucous through the first two home games with catfish tossed on the ice for good luck and country stars such as Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood singing in support. Now fans can cheer their team to a clinching victory instead of watching the Predators shake hands as losers as they did each of their five previous playoff series.
Detroit clinched in Nashville in 2004 and 2008, and San Jose celebrated series' wins in both 2006 and 2007 in Music City. Last year, the Chicago Blackhawks added insult to the pain of the Predators' blown lead in losing Game 5 by closing them out in Nashville.
It was depressing enough some fans held off buying tickets, waiting to see how the Predators would play Friday night first.
Now Predators coach Barry Trotz knows Sunday will bring something different.
"Our goal is to take the next steps all the time. Our arena is a fantastic arena and we just have to keep everything in perspective. We will be ready. It will be a fun atmosphere," Trotz said.
This physical series has featured lots of tough talk, accusations of dirty play, a pair of suspensions, one for a hit that knocked out one of the Predators' top scorers. Martin Erat, who tied with a team-high 50 points, didn't even travel to Anaheim for Friday night's game. He did skate Saturday before the team returned to Nashville and is considered day to day.
Jarkko Ruutu, who hit him, will be back from his one-game suspension.
The Ducks will counter with some desperation. It worked as they rebounded from an ugly performance in losing Game 3 with that 6-3 win that tied the series. Now they can only hope to do the same and stretch this series back to Anaheim for a final game Tuesday night.
"We're fighting for our lives now, there's no doubt about it," Getzlaf said. "We're going into a hostile building, and we're going to have to go in there and play the same way we did in Game 4 and hopefully get the same result."
With the way momentum has swung back and forth, Nashville captain Shea Weber says the Predators know the Ducks will not lie down.
"They are going to come out with their best effort just like they have in the past," Weber said. "We have to make sure we are ready for it."
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham in Anaheim, Calif., and AP freelance writer Jim Diamond contributed to this report.