Friday, June 3, 2011

The Roller Coaster Season Part Vi: The Final Ride

When each NHL team had played 82 games, the Nashville Predators had landed a #5 seed in the Western Conference. Nashville had earned its six playoff birth in franchise history, but the fact remained that the Predators had never reached the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The 2nd round had somehow or another eluded each of their previous post-season appearances, and it was the gigantic elephant in Bridgestone Arena. This year, the roadblock would be the #4 seed Anaheim Ducks.

Anaheim showcased their top line of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and 50 goal scorer Corey Perry. The Ducks' first line was perhaps the best in the NHL. But the Ducks had a glaring weakness on their team- everyone else, excluding Saku Koivu and the ageless wonder, Teemu Selanne. When you get past Anaheim's four best players, you wonder how they made the playoffs. Their all-star goalie, Jonas Hiller, was injured for the majority of the second half of the 2010-2011 season, leaving the Ducks with Ray Emery and newly acquired Dan Ellis. Anaheim's defense corps was questionable other than the experienced Lubomir Visnovsky. You could say that the Anaheim Ducks were the anti-Predators.

The 2010-2011 Ducks were far from the best team Nashville had faces in the playoffs, and the fans knew it. They also were weary of the previous first round failures. A sense of cautious optimism was over the city of Nashville.

This series was by far the chippiest that the Predators had seen since the back-to-back Shark series. But this was different seeing as the first grenade was thrown by Orange County Register "sports writer" by the name of Jeff Miller. His "expert analysis" of the series to come turned out to be just trash. Whether players read this or not (they probably didn't) a controversial and physical series was in the making.

Game 1 was met with excitement on a much anticipated Wednesday night. Nashville stepped into the Honda Center in Anaheim with only a win in mind. The Predators tallied the first goal of the series, as Shea Weber shot a slap shot past Dan Ellis on the power play. Steve Sullivan then put Nashville up 2-0 converting on his own rebound on a semi-breakaway. Mike Fisher then put it in the refrigerator by scoring twice on absolute lasers past Dan Ellis. Ellis was then pulled in exchange for Ray Emery who had been recovering from a lower-body injury. Emery would be the Ducks' goaltender for the rest of the series. The 3rd period was anti-climatic but not uneventful. There were 13 penalties in the 3rd period alone most as a result of the Ducks trying to send a message seeing their chances of pulling out a win dwindling. On the power play, Selanne put the Ducks on the board finally, but Nashville took a 1-0 series lead on their 4-1 game 1 victory.

Game 2 was a must-win for the Ducks. Going down 0-2 heading to the opponents arena is not an option. Corey Perry got the memo as he tallied on the power play early in the first. Teemu Selanne followed suit as he put the Ducks up 2-0 only 6:02 into the 1st period. Early in the 2nd period, Shea Weber wristed a shot over the right shoulder of Emery after a few good chances by Nashville. Anaheim, however, responded with two more goals in the 2nd period from Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf. Nashville closed the gap to one goal after goals from Patric Hornqvist and Joel Ward, but Bobby Ryan sealed a Ducks' victory with en empty net goal. The teams were headed back to Nashville with the series tied at one. But a 5-3 Anaheim win was not the only headline. Bobby Ryan had stepped on Predators defenseman Jonathan Blum's foot in an attempt to free the puck behind the Nashville net. The result was a 2 game suspension for Ryan.

The Nashville Predators had been presented with and at the same time earned the opportunity of their franchise. With a key component of the Ducks missing in Bobby Ryan and a tied series, Nashville was in a prime position to win both home games and take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Predators looked to be on their way to doing just that pretty easily as they went up 2-0 on goals from Erat and Tootoo just 38 seconds apart near the end of the 1st period. But Teemu Selanne struck twice late in the 2nd period to tie the game and left Bridgestone Arena eerily quiet for the remainder of the period and into the intermission. David Legwand regained the lead for Nashville 5:25 into the 3rd period, but Matt Beleskey deflected a Koivu shot past Pekka Rinne just 83 seconds later to tie the game at 3. The air was once again let out of the arena, but Mike Fisher came to the rescue as he was on the receiving end of a Sergei Kostitsyn pass and easily put it past Emery. Nashville was able to hang on and was now two wins away from their first Western Conference Semi-Final appearance.

Game 4 was met with even more excitement in Nashville. A win would give the Predators a 3-1 series lead. For a team that had never even won three games in a series, a win would be a huge step but not THE step. But no steps, certainly not forward, were taken that night by the Nashville Predators. Anaheim tallied two early goals, but Hornqvist cut the Ducks' lead in half, and Ward tipped a Cody Franson shot to tie the game. Selanne once again rained on the Predators' parade by retaking the lead for Anaheim. Matt Halischuk shoveled the puck past Emery after a nice piece of skating by Kevin Klein. But the 3rd period came along and Nashville looked out of it. A shorthanded goal by Corey Perry early in the period seemed to do the Predators in as they gave up two more goals on their way to losing game 4 6-3. The series- tied at 2 games a piece.

Had the Predators done it again? Had they gotten up the hopes of their fans only to let them down with another first round disappointment? The biggest game in franchise history would prove otherwise.

Friday, April 22 would define the 2010-2011 season. Midway through the 1st period, Jordin Tootoo found Kvin Klein on a 2-1 rush who shoveled the puck into the twine to give Nashville a 1-0 lead. But Anaheim would tie the game at one when Jason Blake found the back of the net in the 2nd period. Then after a bad turnover by David Legwand early in the 3rd period, the previously suspended Bobby Ryan deked and dangled his way all the way to Pekka Rinne whom he fooled on the backhand and all of the sudden, the Anaheim Ducks were up 2-1. After a long 10:40, Joel Ward took a slap shot that missed near side. He found his own rebound, and his second slap shot found its way past Emery. Game 5 looked destined for overtime until a strange bounce appeared on the stick of Jason Blake. He easily wristed the puck past Pekka Rinne and the Ducks led once again with 5:34 remaining. All seemed lost on the season. Rinne was on the bench for the extra-attacker with under a minute left when Mike Fisher won the offensive zone faceoff back to Cody Franson. Franson found Captain Shea Weber who snapped the puck over Emery and game 5 was going to overtime, just not the way anyone had expected 10 minutes earlier. Then, just 1:57 into overtime, Tootoo found Jared Smithson in the slot who ended game 5 and put the Preds up 3-2 in the series. The unlikeliest of heroes had given Nashville a chance to make history on their home ice.

Easter Sunday, 2011. Nick Spaling would be the one rising on this day. After Selanne somehow found a hole between Pekka Rinne and the near-side post to give Anaheim a 1-0 1st period lead, Spaling received another excellent pass from Tootoo and Spals sniped the puck into the net to tie the game with under 30 seconds remaining in the opening period of play. Then just 3:29 into the 2nd, JP Dumont found Steve Sullivan who used his signature breakaway move to slide the puck past Ray Emery. 2-1 Nashville. But then it was Anaheim's turn to tie the game on late period goal. Jason Blake tipped a Bobby Ryan shot past Rinne and the Predators had to outscore the Ducks for the next 20 minutes to move on to the 2nd round. 4:53 into the period, Spaling broke the tie. Tootoo created the play by building the wall and inadvertently forced Anaheim defenseman Andreas Lilja into Emery. Spaling located the rebound and put the Preds up 3-2 with ease. That's when Pekka Rinne went to work and stopped every Anaheim chance. With 10 seconds left in the first round, the Nashville Predators' first draft pack in franchise history, David Legwand, sealed the deal. The Nashville Predators were moving on to the Western Conference Semi-Finals for the first time in franchise history.

That's not the end of the story, though. There was no complacency in the Nashville locker room. The Stanley Cup was the only thing in the Predators' sights.

Photo Credit: Nashville Predators

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