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Conference Final

Predators unfazed by injuries, defeat Ducks in Game 5

Nashville takes 3-2 lead in Western Final without leading scorer Ryan Johansen, captain Mike Fisher

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ANAHEIM -- This was the essence of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Nashville Predators' No. 1 center and leading scorer lay in a hospital bed recovering from emergency surgery. Their No. 2 center and captain couldn't play either. They fell behind by a goal.


[RELATED: Complete Predators vs. Ducks series coverage  | Ducks again struggle in third period, lose Game 5 vs. Predators]


Yet in a tight, physical game, they came back to defeat the Anaheim Ducks 3-1 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final at Honda Center on Saturday. Goaltender Pekka Rinne was a hero, making 32 saves. So was forward Pontus Aberg, a veteran of 15 regular-season and eight playoff games in the NHL, who face-planted, lost a tooth and scored the winning goal -- the first playoff goal of his NHL career -- flying through the air like Bobby Orr.

The Predators took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series, putting themselves in position to clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in Game 6 at Nashville on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

And when it was over, defenseman Mattias Ekholm spoke to reporters and acted like it was no big deal.

"I think it's more you guys that build up this win as something huge," Ekholm said. "We felt like it's just another game in this series. Nothing changes. Nothing is different."

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Rinne stones Kesler, Cogliano in 3rd

Center Ryan Johansen, who leads the Predators with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in the playoffs, sustained a left thigh injury in Game 4 on Thursday and needed surgery. Center Mike Fisher, who leads the Predators as captain, sustained an undisclosed injury that night. When the Predators gathered to fly to California on Friday, they learned neither would be coming on the trip.

Nothing changed.

"You just deal with it," Rinne said. "It's never pleasant news, but it wasn't like, 'Oh, my god,' or anything like that. Things could always be way worse. We have a great locker room, and even though those two guys didn't play tonight, we could still use their energy and their spirit to strengthen ourselves."

The Predators talked about Johansen, Fisher and forward Kevin Fiala, who sustained a broken femur against the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round.

"We wanted to bring the lead back home for them," center Vernon Fiddler said. "I'm sure they're happy with the effort."

When the game began, Johansen tweeted a picture of himself in his hospital bed, wearing his gown and a gold Predators cap. Later, he tweeted a picture of himself with Fiala sitting next to the bed with a crutch.

"Took him a while but he made it," Johansen tweeted.

There were no bouquets from Anaheim in those photos. The Ducks had their own adversity: Forward Patrick Eaves didn't play for the ninth straight game. Center Rickard Rakell was a surprise scratch. Goaltender John Gibson left after the first period. All have lower-body injuries.

But the Predators seemed weak down the middle with Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons, Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau. Fiddler, 37, had been a healthy scratch in five of the past eight games. Gaudreau, 24, had played nine regular-season games and none in the playoffs in his NHL career. The four of them had combined for nine points in the playoffs, four fewer than Johansen had himself.

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

Nothing was different.

Johansen is the Predators' best faceoff man; he has taken 304 and won 54.3 percent in the playoffs. Fisher is next; he has taken 261 and won 52.1 percent. Here came Gaudreau, in his NHL debut against opponents like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Antoine Vermette. He took 14 faceoffs and won 10 (71 percent)..

"He got an opportunity, and he was excellent," coach Peter Laviolette said.

Trailing 1-0 in the second period, the Predators went on the power play. They were 1-for-18 in the series. But defenseman P.K. Subban shot the puck from the point and it hit forward Colin Wilson in front. Sissons kept the puck away from Ducks defensemen Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen, and Wilson, his back to the net, took a backhand shot that went in off the inside of the right post and tied the game 1-1 with 40.3 seconds left. It was his first goal in 10 games.

Rinne made a series of saves in the third. A little past the midway point, he stopped defenseman Josh Manson, then stopped forward Nick Ritchie, then fell backward as bodies went flying and somehow the puck stayed out. Seconds later, the puck went the other way. Ekholm, gassed at the end of a shift, pulled up along the left-wing boards and passed to forward Filip Forsberg, who took a shot. Aberg, with one less tooth after crashing near the net earlier, crashed the net for the rebound.

When Orr clinched the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins in 1970, he scored and then was tripped and flew through the air. Aberg tripped over goaltender Jonathan Bernier and then scored as he was flying through the air. The Predators led 2-1 at 11:01.

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

"That's the kind of goals you need from unsung heroes throughout the playoffs," Fiddler said. "Championship teams look back on these kind of things and say, 'Wow, remember when this guy stepped up or this guy stepped up.'"

Forward Austin Watson scored into an empty net with 47.2 seconds to go. After one last scrum, that was it.

"Pooooowwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Johansen tweeted.


Tweet from @RyanJohansen19: Pooooowwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 


From ow to pow.

What an effort. What an opportunity ahead.

"You can't help but think about it," Rinne said. "You think about Monday. You think about the chance you have in front of you. Your dream is to play in the Stanley Cup Final."

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