ANAHEIM - When the Anaheim Ducks shuttled the puck down the length of the ice one last time as the seconds wound down to triple-zero on the Honda Center scoreboard, it was far more meaningful than the clinching moment of a hard-fought Game 7 against the Edmonton Oilers.
It was the exorcising of so many demons from four straight seasons of Game 7 frustration obliterated by an emotional 2-1 Ducks victory that gave Anaheim a berth in the Western Conference Final for the second time in three seasons. The Ducks will face the Nashville Predators in a series that starts Friday evening right back here at Honda Center.
"It feels good," said Ducks captain, Ryan Getzlaf, one of four Ducks to be a part of all five of those Game 7s. "We grinded hard tonight. Hard-fought series. I'm glad we were able to come out on top."
Said Andrew Cogliano, who was also in all five of those games and tonight had Anaheim's first goal, "It just feels awesome."
The Ducks took their first lead of the game - and remarkably their first in a Game 7 in the last five seasons - 3:21 into the third period when Nick Ritchie took in a Sami Vatanen feed in the middle of the right wing circle and whipped it past Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot.
Video: EDM@ANA, Gm7: Ritchie wires a wrister past Talbot
"Sami made a great pass in the middle and I got it on net and it went in," Ritchie said. "We got a break there. I looked up, shot it and saw it sneak in."
That opened the door for more than 16 minutes of gut-check time for the Ducks, who held the lead down the stretch and during some anxious final moments with the help of a stingy defense and goalie John Gibson (23 saves). The game-sealing moment came with five seconds left when defenseman Josh Manson scooped a fumbled puck out of the top of the Anaheim crease and sent it down the ice and safely into the Edmonton end ice as time expired.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence," Gibson said, "and we believe in each other."
Video: EDM@ANA, Gm7: Gibson sprawls to rob McDavid
In addition to the Game 7 redemption, the Ducks wiped away the memories of a nightmarish Game 6 in Edmonton in which Gibson gave up goals on three of the first six Edmonton shots in a 7-1 defeat.
The Ducks had stressed the need to get off to a fast start in this one, considering the early leads they gave up in previous Game 7s, not to mention the fact that the team that scores first is 124-42 all-time in the history of NHL postseason Game 7s.
But it was the Oilers who took the game's first lead just 3:31 after the opening faceoff, capitalizing on a mistake by Ducks youngster Shea Theodore, who was trying to skate up ice from right in front of his own net. In one motion, he surrendered the puck on a hard check by Oilers forward Drake Caggiula and then fell into goalie John Gibson as the puck slipped behind both of them over the stripe.
"I thought our learning process was good," Getzlaf said. "I've gone back to it many times. The way we've played the last half of the season where we've learned to deal with adversity. We had to do that tonight. We gave up an early goal and gave up a lot of goals the other night. Our team played great. Our goalie played unbelievable."
The Ducks appeared to tie it with a little less than six minutes to go on the first, when a pass back to the point was corralled by Cam Fowler before he fired it past Talbot, but one linesman quickly ruled it had crossed the blue line before Fowler touched it.
The finally did get that first goal with 11:05 left in the second, during a goal mouth scramble in which Ryan Kesler managed to blindly backhand a loose puck to the top of the crease, where Cogliano banged it home past sprawled goalie Cam Talbot.
Video: EDM@ANA, Gm7: Cogliano knocks in a loose puck
"We deserved to win this game," Cogliano said. "It was one of our best games of the season in terms of how we competed. We could've gotten down on ourselves after letting the first goal in. We played a great game. We kept playing."
Anaheim had several more chances in a second period in which they outshot Edmonton 16-3, but the Cogliano strike was all they would get.
That was until Ritchie came through early in the third to blow the roof off an over-capacity Honda Center, a crowd that got even louder as that puck slid down into the Edmonton end in the waning seconds of a thrilling game.
They watched the Ducks qualify for the Western Conference Final for the fifth time in franchise history. It's also their second trip to the Conference Finals in the last three years (joining only Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, 2), their fourth since 2006 (joining only Chicago, 5, and Pittsburgh, 4) and their fifth since 2003 (joining only Chicago and Pittsburgh, 5).
"The turning point in the game for us was our fourth line went out and got us a grind shift in the second period," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said of the unit of Jared Boll, Nate Thompson, and Chris Wagner. "Every other line after that until the end of the second period followed that up. We had them on the run. We were out-changing them, had some momentum swings and our crowd really got into it.
"I have to credit those guys for their effort and what they did in that specific situation. We had a real solid second period and our fans got really emotionally involved, and so did our players. We did it in the right way."
The Ducks erased a 0-2 series deficit for the first time in club history. Prior to Anaheim's series win, NHL teams had an all-time series record of 48-309 when losing the first two games of a series (13.4%).