NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Perhaps it's hyperbole, but Predators coach Barry Trotz said after his team's 4-3 victory on Sunday that without trading for Mike Fisher, Nashville, the fifth seed in the Western Conference, would not have even made the playoffs.
When the Preds' match had ended late on Sunday afternoon at a raucous Bridgestone Arena, giving them a 2-1 series lead, Fisher stood atop all playoff scorers with five points, including, significantly, the game-winning goal in Game 3. Fisher now has three playoff goals after totaling only five in 27 regular season games after the Predators acquired him from Ottawa, the only team with which the 30-year-old had ever played.
"It's always fun when you can contribute," Fisher said. "Obviously a big part of that's my linemates are playing really well and giving me opportunities to score, but overall I think just winning is so much fun. Now we got a lot of work to still do and hopefully we can keep going."
It was a wild game dominated in shots (37-16) and territorial play for most of the first two periods by the Predators while Anaheim played without 34-goal scorer Bobby Ryan, who was suspended for a kicking incident, and struggled to find offense through the game's first 38 minutes.
Teemu Selanne, the 40-year-old who helped to propel Anaheim into the playoffs, as he finished with 31 goals in 73 games, scored twice in a 30-second span late in the second to tie the game at 2-2. The teams traded goals early in the third and then Fisher struck midway through the final period.
The play started innocently enough with Ryan Suter skating up ice and dumping the puck in. But Patric Hornqvist tied up his man, allowing Sergei Kostitsyn to make a nifty pass to Fisher at the back door and the center put it in before Ducks goalie Ray Emery could get across the crease.
"Fish is a guy that when we got him, he's been through the wars," Trotz said of his player, who competed against many of these Ducks in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. "He's a strong two-way centerman and can play in all situations. He's proving why ownership allowed us to go get him.
"We don't even make the playoffs without the Mike Fisher move with all the injuries we've had at center ice, and he's playing well for us."
Despite being outplayed for much of the game, Anaheim gave itself a chance to win. After David Legwand helped Nashville regain a 3-2 lead at 4:25 of the third by slamming in Suter's feed from the left wall near the goal line, Anaheim answered right back. Cam Fowler's point shot deflected off falling Ducks forward Matt Beleskey and the puck caromed in off the skate of Nashville's Cody Franson.
The Ducks had a chance to take the lead with the game tied at 3-3, as Fowler moved in alone on Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, but the Preds goaltender stopped the wrist shot with his blocker.
Nashville entered second intermission outshooting the Ducks 27-10 and until Jason Blake's shot at 16:18, the Ducks only had one shot on goal in the second period.
"The first 30 minutes we stood around and really didn't get our feet moving," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "We committed some atrocious turnovers in the hockey game in the defensive zone. If we don't play better defensively than we played tonight, then I don't think that we can give ourselves much of a chance."
The Ducks gained momentum when their captain Ryan Getzlaf dropped the gloves with Fisher, each earning fighting majors with 3:05 left in the second period.
The Ducks seemed to gain energy from there and Nashville defenseman Shane O'Brien went off for elbowing with 2:31 left. Selanne scored on a cross-ice pass from Corey Perry on the power play for Selanne's third power-play goal of the series. Then Selanne converted again, this time as Perry shot hard and wide of the net from high on the left side but Selanne, in front of the net, batted in the rebound from the opposite side of the goal at 18:40.
"That was big," a dejected Selanne said of Getzlaf's fight. "That changed the momentum. Leaders have to do that sometimes and that gave us a spark. We were back in the game but still a couple back-door plays in the third, empty-nets. Boom … it's two goals in the third. So many mistakes, it's unbelievable."
Fisher seemed to regret the choice to drop the gloves, saying his "timing may have not been the best, but just one of those things that emotions can get the best of you and if it's going to be a guy it's best it's him."
Nashville had taken a 2-0 lead into first intermission. The Preds' power play continued to click as soon as it got its first chance in the first period of Game 3, scoring at least one power-play goal in every game in the series. With Luca Sbisa off for an interference call, the Preds peppered Emery with four shots.
The final one came from Martin Erat after Lubomir Visnovsky whiffed on the puck right in front of the goal. Erat skated right into the puck and banged it in at 15:00.
The Preds added to their lead 38 seconds later by taking advantage of a turnover by along the left wall in his zone. Jordin Tootoo collected the puck, did some nifty stickhandling and launched a shot off the post. As Fowler crushed him to the ice, he managed to get a stick on the rebound and put it past Emery.
It was an uphill battle for the Ducks much of the night. With 2:20 left in regulation, Saku Koivu earned a tripping penalty while chasing Nashville defenseman Jonathon Blum to try and negate an icing call. That all but ended Anaheim's chances.
The sequence mirrored a nightmarish finish for Nashville from last year's playoffs. In Game 5 in Chicago with a chance to take a 3-2 series lead back to Nashville, the Preds had a one-goal lead and major power play with about one minute left in regulation. All they had to do was keep the Blackhawks from scoring, but a turnover led to an odd-man rush in which the Blackhawks tied the game and then won it overtime.
"You play so well for so long and then something like that happens and it can really test your mettle and character and I thought we responded really well," Trotz said of losing the lead late in the second. "Going into second intermission, you could hear a pin drop. I think our team's grown and learned from last couple of years.
"Hey, we did so many good things in first two periods. Let's not ignore that and we did that in the third. It tests you again and Fish gets a goal and then, of all things, we get a power play in last two minutes and we exorcised a little ghosts there. You guys were all thinking that, too. You guys were ready to write the story. We handled it well. They pulled their goalie at the end for 20 seconds. Shea (Weber) got his stick sawed in half on the forecheck with Selanne chopping him there and they got a 6-on-4, but we did a good job handling it. It was the best thing that happened. We had to battle to the end."