The Predators could and, for all intents and purposes, should have put the Anaheim Ducks away in the first period Friday night — holding off any type of late rallies behind a multiple-goal lead.
But that’s not what was in store for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Nashville attempted 23 shots towards Ducks goaltender John Gibson in the first period, which included six high-danger chances. All the Predators could do was tie the game after Anaheim broke open the scoring on its first shot of the night.
And what seemed like a great opening night for the Predators drug on into exactly what Anaheim wanted — a slugfest.
The Ducks are known for being a physical team that can goad others into taking silly, retaliatory penalties. They’ve used that same approach, along with some strong late defensive stands, to take down both Calgary and Edmonton. How was Friday night going to be any different?
One of the bigger differences that stuck out during Game 1 than any game the Predators have played prior in this postseason was the face-off battle. Normally, this is something Nashville has dominated all throughout the playoffs, but were ceremoniously thrashed at the dot by the Ducks.
Mike Fisher, who’s been fantastic all postseason for Nashville on face-offs, went 9-for-27 on draws against Anaheim during game one.
To put that into perspective, Fisher started the night at eighth among all players in the playoffs for face-off win percentage with more than 100 draws (55.4 percent, 99-of-179). He ended the night dropping down to 14th (52.4 percent, 108 of 206).
Anaheim was second-best in the regular season for face-offs at 56 percent. It should come as no shock that its winning a battle the Predators have relied on so much this postseason.
Nashville can survive losing the face-off battle, as they proved Friday night, but it’ll need to be just a smidge better as the series continues.
Case and point — Anaheim’s Nate Thompson won a crucial face-off in Nashville’s zone with less than 13 minutes to go in regulation, sent it back to Hampus Lindholm, who promptly put it right past Pekka Rinne to tie the game at 2-2.
That face-off was the only one that Predators forward Calle Jarnkrok took in the defensive zone last night. What hurts more is Nashville being a combined 6-of-18 on defensive zone draws — perhaps the most important time to win a face-off.
Luckily, it only bit the Predators once during Game 1, but it could have been significantly worse.
There are plenty of positives to focus on for Nashville after stealing home ice advantage away from the Ducks, but when you’re a well-oiled machine and a cog flies off its handles you take care of the issue then and there before things get worse.
If Nashville needs to address anything prior to Game 2, they know exactly what it is. They don’t even have to win the overall face-off battle, just execute better than they did in Game 1.
As the game progressed, there seemed to be some level of visible fatigue on the Ducks. Maybe not enough to truly cost them a game, but Nashville was clearly the fresher of the two teams after regulation and completely dominated Anaheim prior to the game-winning goal halfway into the extra frame.
Players won’t readily admit that exhaustion can play a part in on-ice participation, but at this stage in the playoffs the question should start cropping up. Prior to Game 1, Anaheim had out-traveled Nashville by nearly five-to-one — 7,924 miles to the Predators 1,635.
This coming 48 hours after a stingy 2-1 win in Game 7 against the Edmonton Oilers.
If there were any game that Anaheim truly needed to win, it was Friday’s Game 1. After tying it midway through the third, a comeback win could’ve given the Ducks an emotional boost to play into Game 2 on Sunday.
Now, however, it’s about not losing two straight and heading to a very hostile Bridgestone Arena for Game 3.
The Predators can put a stranglehold on Anaheim Sunday night. A win to make the series 2-0, heading back home where they’ve yet to lose this postseason, could turn what should be a lengthy series into a very short one. Just ask Chicago, which may still be stunned after a four-game sweep in Round 1.
There are no guarantees in hockey. Nashville could win the first two and lose the next two. Anything could happen at this stage, but there’s no denying that James Neal’s game-winner was an absolute gut-punch to the Ducks.
If the Predators tweak their face-off game a bit and come out on fire Sunday night as they did in Game 1, they may find themselves two wins away from a Stanley Cup Final berth heading back to the Music City.