By Kyle Shohara
The wait is finally over.
Tonight, the Ducks officially begin their quest for the Stanley Cup as they host the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round. It’s a matchup that was earned by way of Anaheim’s fourth consecutive Pacific Division title, captured on the final day of the regular season with a 2-0 victory in Washington.
This marks Anaheim's 12th trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs all-time and the ninth in the last 11 years. Nashville, meanwhile, enters the postseason for the second consecutive season and ninth time in the past 12 campaigns. Of course, these two teams have met once before in postseason action, back in 2011 when the fifth-seed Predators eliminated the fourth-seed Ducks in six games.
“We’re ready to play,” said Ducks left wing Andrew Cogliano. “This is the best time of the year. It should be a great atmosphere tonight. It’s something we look forward to. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. I’m sure the fans are excited, as they should be. Hopefully we can start this series off with a win.”
John Gibson will lead the Ducks out onto the ice for Game 1, while veteran stalwart Pekka Rinne is expected to do so for the Predators.
The decision to go with Gibson tonight in favor of Frederik Andersen, Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau says, became clear when the former held strong over a two-week span down the stretch.
“It became evident when Freddie got hurt and Gibby played six games in a row,” said Boudreau. “Freddie played a tremendous game in Washington, but we decided to go with Gibby. He was playing all the games in the end. When you look at it, Freddie’s played one game in three weeks.”
This being the last of the eight NHL playoff series to begin has allowed the Ducks to get injured players two full practices and a morning skate under their belts, and one thing is certain: Left wing David Perron (separated shoulder) and center Rickard Rakell (appendectomy) are in the lineup tonight, as confirmed by Boudreau.
Having them back gives the Ducks some much-needed depth and offense throughout the lineup, something they’ll need against a staunch Predators squad with perhaps the deepest defense corps in the playoffs.
Boudreau says Kevin Bieksa is a game-time decision. The rugged defenseman took part in the team’s optional skate this morning.
Sami Vatanen will play. “He just had the flu,” Boudreau said. “He needed to get that out of the system. He’s practiced hard. He’s ready to play.”
Led by All-Star defensemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi, the Predators afforded to shed promising blueliner Seth Jones to Columbus in exchange for top-line center Ryan Johansen back in early January. Also patrolling the blueline are second-pair defensemen Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis.
Down the middle, the Preds roll with Johansen, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher and Paul Gaustad. Their top-six includes LW Calle Jarnkrok and RW James Neal on the first line, and LW Filip Forsberg and RW Craig Smith on the second line. Having two legitimate scoring lines will pose a challenge for the Ducks, who will use Ryan Kesler’s line extensively.
“Kes will play against one of those lines for sure,” said Boudreau. “Then, we have an option of putting [Ryan] Getzlaf against the other centerman. It’s tough to counter two really good scoring lines, but hopefully we can contain them a little bit.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE
Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis: “For whatever reason, [Anaheim] had a tough start out of the gate. They found their game and they’re coming in feeling good, but so are we. We’re excited to get this thing going. We’re going to have to be good in all areas because they’re a dangerous team all around.” [Ellis and Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler were teammates on the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in 2009-10.]
Predators left wing Colin Wilson: “We match up well against [Anaheim]. They're definitely a big, heavy team. We can match up in that regard.”
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette: “All I know is that if we don’t win one on the road, we’re not going on. That’s our objective at this point. Just to make sure we go out there and do the right things, try to play our brand of hockey, do enough good things where we can come away with a win or wins. Then we have to come back home and hold serve. It’s a long series. I think it’s probably best to just go slow with it and talk about Game 1. Our guys will be ready to play. We’ve had lots of preparation, we’ve had a couple of good practices and it’ll be exciting.”PROJECTED LINE COMBINATIONS
David Perron – Ryan Getzlaf – Chris Stewart
Andrew Cogliano – Ryan Kesler – Jakob Silfverberg
Jamie McGinn – Rickard Rakell – Corey Perry
Ryan Garbutt – Nate Thompson – Chris Wagner
Cam Fowler – Kevin Bieksa
Hampus Lindholm – Josh Manson
Simon Despres – Sami Vatanen
Frederik AndersenNASHVILLE PREDATORS
Calle Jarnkrok - Ryan Johansen - James Neal
Filip Forsberg - Mike Ribeiro - Craig Smith
Colin Wilson - Mike Fisher - Viktor Arvidsson
Miikka Salomaki - Paul Gaustad - Cody Bass
Roman Josi - Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm - Ryan Ellis
Barret Jackman - Anthony Bitetto