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Predators excited for Game 7 vs. Ducks

Nashville plays first in its history against Anaheim on Wednesday

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

NASHVILLE -- In their 17 seasons in the NHL, the Nashville Predators have experienced so much: their first game, their first playoff game, the 2016 All-Star Game. They have made the playoffs nine times and filled Bridgestone Arena with Predators gold, that rich yellow color on all those replica jerseys and rally towels.

But among the things they have not experienced is one of the biggest thrills in hockey: Game 7.

Finally, they will have their chance.

Captain Shea Weber, the longest-tenured Predator, who has played 763 regular-season and 51 playoff games for this franchise, and only this franchise, scored an empty-netter with 10 seconds left Monday and iced a 3-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round.

The fans roared and waved their towels as time expired. The Predators raised their sticks in salute, then headed off to Honda Center in Anaheim for the series finale Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).

Win that one, and they will come back from a 3-2 deficit and win a series for the first time too. They will advance to the second round for the third time.

"You dream about it growing up," Weber said with a smile. "You're playing road hockey. You're playing on the pond. It's Game 7, overtime winner. Hopefully it's for us. It's an exciting time, and we'll see what happens."

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Weber seals win with empty-netter

How exciting is Game 7? Well, how often do you hear a player admit he was looking ahead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Goaltender Pekka Rinne, who also has played his entire NHL career for the Predators, appearing in 447 regular-season games and 40 playoff games, said he tried to focus only on Game 6 on Monday afternoon. But he couldn't help it.

"I was thinking about the Game 7," Rinne said. "Now it's here. It's a great feeling."

It's a not-so-great feeling for the Ducks. They have plenty of experience with Game 7, especially lately. They have been eliminated in Game 7 at home three years in a row. Not only that, they have done it in the same circumstances: after being ahead in the series 3-2.

They did it against the Detroit Red Wings three years ago in the first round. They did it against the Los Angeles Kings two years ago in the second round. They did it against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final last year.

Yes, the team has changed. Yes, the Ducks can draw inspiration from the St. Louis Blues, who blew chances to advance in the first round three years in a row, blew a 3-2 series lead to the Blackhawks on Saturday, blew a 2-0 lead to them in Game 7 on Monday and overcame it all to win.

But let's face it.

"Certainly I think there's pressure," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "I think things linger around from years past a little bit and in the back of your head."

The Ducks were supposed to win this series. They finished sixth in the NHL standings; the Predators finished 14th. They ranked first in goals against and penalty killing; the Predators weren't even close. Few picked the Predators to win; only three out of 70 experts, by the count of Laviolette, happy to play up the underdog angle.

The Ducks were supposed to contend for the Stanley Cup. They were built to do that and they have built up to that over the last three years; first round, second round, third round. Another blown 3-2 series lead and Game 7 loss, in the first round again, would be devastating.

"Nothing needs to be said," said captain Ryan Getzlaf, one of the Ducks who has been part of each of the losses the past three years. "We've got to go out and do it. There's no big speech or anything when it comes to Game 7. Everyone knows what they're doing, and we've got to go out and execute better than the other group."

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Rinne stops Horcoff's slap shot

The beauty of this, as it always is, is that after six games we have no idea what it will come down to. A great play? A lucky bounce? A star player? A role player?

Frederik Andersen had gone 3-0 with a .966 save percentage in this series since taking over in goal for Anaheim. He looked good again Monday.

Still, he lost. 

Meanwhile, Rinne had allowed 11 goals in three games and entered with a .889 save percentage in the series, and he rebounded, allowing one goal and making a huge save on Ducks right wing Corey Perry late in the third period. Who has the edge in Game 7? Who knows?

Ducks center Ryan Kesler had smothered Predators center Ryan Johansen much of the series, matching up with him at home and on the road. But in a rare moment when Kesler wasn't out against him Monday, Johansen seized the opportunity, taking off on a 2-on-1 and feeding James Neal for what turned out to be the winning goal. Will he break free at a key moment in Game 7? Will Kesler smother him again? Will it matter?

Will the winning goal come from someone like Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who had eight goals in 82 regular-season games and scored his second in six playoff games Monday, or will it be someone like Perry, a Rocket Richard winner who hasn't scored yet in this series?

This is what it's all about, Nashville.

Finally, it's your turn.

"They're great fans," Weber said. "I'm sure they've watched a lot of Game 7s. They know how important it is, how much fun it is. It's going to be the first exciting one for this franchise, and hopefully it's a good one."

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