ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Nashville Predators' celebration of a landmark moment in franchise history consisted of a few minutes of excitement in the Honda Center dressing room with a 14-year-old Nelly song blaring in the background.
By outlasting the Anaheim Ducks in a 2-1 victory on Wednesday night, the Predators won a playoff round for only the third time ever. Facing Game 7 pressure for the first time, they bent and scrambled, but never broke.
Their reward was the chance to go right back to work Friday on their Stanley Cup quest.
"I think that's all you can ask for, is another chance to start Game 1 in San Jose and work from there," Predators forward James Neal said. "No guy wanted to be done playing hockey. We had a belief in this room that we could win this series, and we did."
The Predators will visit the Shark Tank for Game 1 of the second round, getting another high-scoring California power. San Jose routed the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
Yet the Predators found a road resilience they'll want to replicate at the Shark Tank. After Colin Wilson and Paul Gaustad scored in the first period, Pekka Rinne made it stand up with ample help from his defense.
Rinne made 36 saves for the wild-card Predators, who rallied from a 3-2 series deficit and ousted the Pacific Division champion Ducks with a workmanlike road victory. With a few big saves by Rinne and just enough fortunate bounces, Nashville earned just the third playoff series win in team history — the first since 2012, and the second over Anaheim.
"It means a lot, and it shows a lot of character," Rinne said. "As a group, we can learn from this series. It's a really good team we played against, and there's a lot of good things we can take from this series. Moving forward, I think we're a better team already."
The Ducks had numerous late chances to tie it while largely dominating the final two periods, outshooting Nashville 28-10. But a redirected shot clanked off Rinne's post in the third, and nothing went in during a frantic final minute, leaving the Ducks with a mountain of frustration and the Predators with a cathartic escape.
"They had some chances and a lot of shots, but I still thought that we defended really hard," Rinne said. "We didn't give them second chances, and I was able to see most of the pucks. We had to play defense, and they played a strong game tonight, but we did an excellent job."
The Predators handled the pressure splendidly. Only six players had even appeared in a seventh game with other teams, but they were already looking forward to their return to Nashville next week.
"It's nice to get to the second round," Wilson said. "I think our fans have been waiting for it, and we want to keep moving on."
The Ducks' recent Game 7 failures followed similar scripts that all started with an early goal by the visitors: Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago all scored in the opening 4 1/2 minutes.
The Predators waited just a bit longer than that, getting on the board 6:19 in when Wilson got the puck away from Simon Despres. An ominous quiet settled over Honda Center when Gaustad doubled Nashville's lead with a high deflection of Shea Weber's shot for his first goal of the postseason.
Kesler broke up Rinne's shutout with 18:15 left in the third on tic-tac-toe passes from Hampus Lindholm and Jakob Silfverberg. The Ducks pressed throughout the final minutes but never broke through despite one deflected shot off Rinne's post and another missed open net by Corey Perry
Nashville stifled the Ducks' top goal-scorer, holding Perry to no goals and a minus-7 rating in the series. The Sharks present their own challenges with Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but the Predators will be rolling up the California coast with confidence.
"It's a big step," said coach Peter Laviolette, who improved to 5-1 in Game 7s. "If you can't take this one step, you can't take any more steps."