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Conference Final

Predators using depth to thrive in playoffs

Unlikely players among reasons Nashville can advance to Cup Final with win against Ducks in Game 6

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

ANAHEIM -- The bags sat in the hall outside the victors' locker room at Honda Center on Saturday. Most were the blue and gold of the Nashville Predators, but some were the navy blue and light blue of Milwaukee of the American Hockey League.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs test the depth of your organization and the depth of your soul, and the Predators passed on both counts in a 3-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final. They lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 and can clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in Game 6 at Nashville on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Missing their top two centers -- leading scorer Ryan Johansen and captain Mike Fisher -- the Predators won anyway because of what general manager David Poile and coach Peter Laviolette have built. They still had their goaltender, Pekka Rinne. They still had their vaunted top four on defense. They still had their dog-on-a-bone identity.

 

[RELATED: Predators unfazed by injuries | Complete Ducks vs. Predators series coverage]

 

And when they needed players to assume larger roles or fill holes, they had players like Colton Sissons, Colin Wilson, Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau to do it.

When defenseman P.K. Subban was asked what it said about the team, he said the key word was team.

"We have a solid team," he said. "That includes depth. And you need that all the way from not just our hockey club in the NHL but also through the minors. And you see players that have come up and been able to make the transition and come into our system and be able to play and be effective pretty seamlessly. For us, we're confident with whoever we have on the ice."

The Ducks had adversity of their own. Forwards Patrick Eaves and Rickard Rakell did not play, and goaltender John Gibson left after the first period. Each had a lower-body injury. Every team has adversity to overcome this time of year. Ask the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final too.

That does not diminish the Predators' predicament. It underscores the importance of depth and mental toughness.

Sissons, 23, was selected in the second round (No. 50) in the 2012 NHL Draft. He spent parts of three seasons with Milwaukee before staying with Nashville full time this season. Here he was thrust into the top six and onto the second power play; with the Predators trailing 1-0 in the second period, he made a little play that led to the tying goal, keeping the puck away from Ducks defensemen Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Wilson chips in PPG off the post

Wilson, 27, was selected in the first round (No. 7) in 2008. He spent 40 games with Milwaukee in 2009-10 and has been with the Predators ever since. He had been a playoff scorer in the past. But he had one goal in 10 playoff games this year until Sissons kept that puck alive. With his back to the net, he backhanded the puck in off the inside of the right post.

Aberg, 23, was selected in the second round (No. 37) in 2012. He has spent the past three seasons with Milwaukee, coming up for 15 regular-season and eight playoff games with Nashville this season prior to Saturday. Aberg had two points (one goal, one assist) in the regular season and one point (one assist) in the playoffs. But he did a face plant, lost a tooth, came back and scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the third period, tripping over goaltender Jonathan Bernier and flying through the air like Bobby Orr. To some, it was no surprise.

"I've seen him come through Sweden's system, and he's been down in Milwaukee," defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "You guys can check his stats down there. He's been lights out."

Yep. Aberg scored 16 goals in 69 games in 2014-15, 25 in 74 last season and 31 in 56 this season. When he scored Saturday, he became the 16th different Predators player to score in these playoffs.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Aberg lays out to net go-ahead goal

Then there is Gaudreau, 24, who was signed as an undrafted free agent. He spent time with Cincinnati of the ECHL in 2014-15 as well as Milwaukee, then played the past two seasons with Milwaukee. He had played nine NHL regular-season games, none after Jan. 8, and zero playoff games before Game 5 of the Western Conference Final. He won 10 of 14 faceoffs (71 percent).

"After not being here towards the end of the year, after not playing in one single game, he got an opportunity and he was excellent," Laviolette said. "He was good in the faceoff circle. He had to play good defense. He was strong on the puck. He tried to make plays. We put him in the middle, where obviously we are minus Mike and Ryan tonight, two of our centermen in a lot of situations, and I thought Freddy really did his job."

Lots of people really did their jobs, from the front office on down.

"More than ever before, I feel like we have more depth," Rinne said. "And it shows."

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