ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators clung to a small lead for two full periods, scrambling and dodging and stopping everything the Anaheim Ducks could throw at them.
They hung on until the final horn, emerging triumphant from their first Game 7 and opening a new chapter in Smashville hockey.
The Ducks were left with the same strange story to tell for another long summer.
Colin Wilson and Paul Gaustad scored in the first period and the Predators hung on to win the franchise’s first Game 7, advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 2-1 victory over the Ducks on Wednesday night.
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. “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. Moving forward, I think we’re a better team already.”
Nashville will travel up the California coast to face the San Jose Sharks on Friday night.
“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.”
The Predators handled the pressure splendidly despite the franchise’s total inexperience with the winner-take-all game. Only six Predators had even appeared in a seventh game with other teams, but they all ended up celebrating a breakthrough for Music City hockey at Honda Center.
“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.”
For the fourth consecutive season, the Ducks blew a 3-2 series lead and lost a Game 7 at home.
Frederik Andersen made 18 saves and Ryan Kesler scored a power-play goal early in the third period for the Ducks. They 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.
“I thought we dominated them throughout the game,” Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said. “I don’t think they had any really good looks, and we hit a couple of posts. This was probably one of our best games in the series, but wasn’t meant to be. I can’t explain it. Can’t get a bounce, it seems like, to start out these games, and they end up killing us.”
Anaheim was a popular Stanley Cup pick after its incredible second-half surge, but the Ducks couldn’t break their cycle of Game 7 collapses over the past four seasons. They’ve been outscored by a combined 16-8 in seventh games since 2013, including 9-1 in the first periods of those games after Nashville took its 2-0 lead.
Although just four players remain from the 2013 loss to Detroit, in Game 7, Anaheim hasn’t even led in a seventh game since 2006 – also the year of the club’s last victory in a winner-take-all playoff game.
This season’s playoff collapse included three losses on home ice. Bruce Boudreau dropped to 1-7 in seventh games in his NHL coaching career, including six consecutive losses in Anaheim and Washington.
Boudreau was asked if it was the toughest Game 7 loss of his tenure with the Ducks.
“With the way the score was and the way we were pushing, I’d say yes,” Boudreau said. “Especially (because of) how hard we had to push from November on just to get to where we were. We did everything the hard way.”
Corey Perry didn’t score a goal in the seven-game series, and the former NHL MVP missed an open net for a tying goal in the third period. He finished with a minus-7 rating for the Ducks, who didn’t score an even-strength goal in the final two games.
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.
NOTES: Anaheim activated D Clayton Stoner for the first time in the series, scratching rookie Shea Theodore. … The Predators scratched F Cody Bass for the first time in the series, using Colton Sissons and Craig Smith instead.