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Predators can rally, or fold, after losing Ryan Johansen for playoffs

Nashville at crossroads heading into Game 5 of Western Final against Ducks

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Well, now the Nashville Predators have a choice.

They can bow out meekly against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final. There would be no shame in it, really. They made the conference final for the first time in their history, and then they lost Ryan Johansen, their No. 1 center and leading scorer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They might be without Mike Fisher, their No. 2 center and captain, too. Whatever happens from this point, they can call this season a success.

Or they can use their dog-on-a-bone mentality, find a way to win and make a special run even more special. The best-of-7 series isn't over. It's tied 2-2 entering Game 5 at Anaheim on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). The Predators are two games from making the Stanley Cup Final for the first time, and they still have goaltender Pekka Rinne; defensemen Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban; and forwards Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and James Neal.

What do you think they'll do?

Obviously the news was devastating Friday. The Predators said Johansen sustained a left thigh injury in the 3-2, Game 4 overtime loss on Thursday, had emergency surgery, and is expected to recover in 2-3 months. They gave no further details.


[RELATED: Johansen out for rest of playoffs | Coach's analysis: Predators must find positives for Game 5]


Johansen, big and skilled, is the Predators' answer to Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf. The 24-year-old is the target of Ducks center Ryan Kesler, a Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's best defensive forward, especially on the road when Anaheim has the second line change. Johansen is the one who has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 14 games, tying the Predators record for playoff scoring.

Even if Fisher were healthy, Johansen could not be replaced. For all the things Fisher brings, he has not brought offensive production in these playoffs. He has zero points. But Fisher might not be healthy. He left Game 4 in the third period and did not play in overtime, and his status has not been revealed publicly. The Predators' top center in Game 5 could be Calle Jarnkrok, who has two points (one goal, one assist) in 13 games.

It's incredible how quickly things can change. The Predators trailed 2-0 in the third period of Game 4, then rallied to tie the game 2-2. Bridgestone Arena was rocking. They were one goal away from taking a 3-1 series lead. And now this.

But it's not like the Predators are hopeless here. They are allowing the fewest goals per game in these playoffs (1.79). Rinne has the highest save percentage in these playoffs (.940). Their top four defensemen are their engine, getting the puck out of their end, moving it up the ice with speed, sustaining pressure in the offensive zone and factoring into a large part of the offense. Arvidsson has been excellent. Forsberg has seven goals. Neal has five.

Video: Johnston discusses Ryan Johansen's injury

This weakens the Predators down the middle, no question, but it does not change their strengths. They need to continue to play to them. They need to stay aggressive, push the pace and keep the puck in the offensive end as much as possible. They still have enough firepower to put the puck in the net, not as much as before, but enough to get by. They still have the goaltending to keep the puck out of their net if things break down. They still can win two out of three.

Coach Peter Laviolette is a motivator. He can play up the underdog angle now. He can play up the dog angle -- the blue bulldog named Stanley the Predators have on the wall, on the door, on their sweatshirts, clenching a bone in his teeth.

Above the bulldog on the door to the Predators locker room, in all caps, is the word "BELIEVE." Below the dog are the phrases "in a dream," "in the process" and "in each other." In another spot in the room, in all caps, are the words "WE ARE WHAT WE BELIEVE WE ARE."

Do they still believe?

Without Johansen and maybe Fisher, who are they?

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