The resilience that has been the Ducks' trademark during their push into the Western Conference finals deserted them Saturday. They ran out of energy and skidded into the grateful hands of the Nashville Predators, who aren't just acting like they belong here — they do belong here. And maybe in the Stanley Cup finals, too.
While the Ducks spoke of running out of gas and not competing hard enough, the Predators simply regrouped after losing top scorer Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher to injuries before Saturday's game. The Predators were the resilient group Saturday, scoring late in the second period and twice in the third to leave the Honda Center with a 3-1 victory and head home with a chance to clinch a berth in the Cup finals if they win Monday at Bridgestone Arena.
"I thought that we had the opportunity to go out and play hard and send a message in our building and we didn't compete on the puck throughout," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "That means being hard on pucks, that means directing pucks at the net, all those things.
"I don't think our compete level was where it needed to be. I thought they came out and worked harder than us in the second and third period and that was the difference in the game."
There's no extra day between games for them to recharge mentally and physical by taking a diversionary side trip, as they did during their seven-game elimination of Edmonton in the second round, or to relax by taking a day off to play pool, as they did before they pulled out an overtime win in Game 4 against the Predators on Thursday at Nashville. The clock is ticking on them and their season, and whatever resilience they've displayed up to now is nothing compared to what they'll need Monday in what will be a rollicking, gold-filled arena filled with fans eager to watch the Predators continue the team's longest-ever playoff journey.
It came down to execution of their respective game plans, as it usually does in a matchup this close and this emotionally fraught, and the Predators won in that regard. The Ducks had been bouncing back despite enduring long slumps by Ryan Kesler (now without a goal in nine games) and Andrew Cogliano (one goal in the playoffs) and the absence of high-scoring Patrick Eaves since early in the Edmonton series, but losing productive winger Rickard Rakell to an undisclosed injury before the game Saturday took a toll. They also lost goaltender John Gibson to a lower-body injury after the first period, and collectively those absences took a toll.
By contrast, the Predators seemed to feed off their dire situation and played a structured game in the neutral zone, keeping the Ducks from entering the offensive zone with speed or numbers.
"We're in a tough spot with the guys that aren't with us," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "We knew we had a tough opponent in front of us. Our guys put in a gutsy effort. ... We had guys that showed up and played extremely hard today and fought hard and played against a good team, a veteran team, and we were able to walk away with a win."
Among the guys who showed up and made an impact was rookie Pontus Aberg, who scored what held up as the game-winning goal off a rebound at 11 minutes 1 second of the third period, moments after he had undergone the NHL's concussion protocol because he had face-planted onto the ice and lost a tooth. Also noteworthy was center Frederick Gaudreau, who fearlessly won 10 of 14 faceoffs (71% success rate against one of the league's top faceoff teams) in his NHL playoff debut. Those are clutch performances.
Whoever is on the ice for the Ducks on Monday — and again Wednesday if they take it to a Game 7 — can't be outworked or outcompeted or the team will be out of the playoffs. They have to find a way to muster the effort they could have and should have put out there Saturday.
"You can take a look in the mirror. It's on the individual to get yourself prepared and figure out where we are," said Chris Wagner, who scored for the Ducks at 12:46 of the second period. "It's a privilege to be here. We've earned it. We've got to take that opportunity and use it to the best of our advantage.
"We have two must-win games now and we don't have a choice whether to bring an effort or not now."