NASHVILLE -- As defenseman Mattias Ekholm wound up for a slap shot during the Nashville Predators' morning skate Thursday, forward Viktor Arvidsson stood just outside the crease in front of goaltender Pekka Rinne. Ekholm shot the puck right at Arvidsson, so hard Arvidsson couldn't get out of the way. The puck struck him in the midsection with a thud.
And a bunch of the Predators cheered.
"We don't like him," defenseman Roman Josi said.
"Yeah," Ekholm said. "We don't like him."
Actually, they love him, and this was a good omen for Game 4 of the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks at Bridgestone Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). The Predators lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 in part because of what happened Tuesday.
The Predators do the same drill during most morning skates; defensemen shoot from the point with Arvidsson in front of Rinne practicing screens and deflections. The morning of Game 3, Ekholm hit Arvidsson in the chest. Arvidsson skated to center ice hunched over to let the pain subside, then went back to work.
"He's been known to hit guys," Arvidsson said of Ekholm with a smile. "He doesn't really know where it's going."
That night the Predators went on the power play late in the third period with the score tied 1-1. They were 0-for-11 with the man advantage in the series at that point and needed to make something happen. The Predators moved the puck around the offensive zone until center Ryan Johansen passed from the left wing to the point.
[RELATED: Complete Ducks vs. Predators series coverage]
"Usually I don't get shots from the top because they [the Ducks penalty-killers] work in an 'I' formation," Ekholm said. "But they got a little tired and I saw an opening. I was just thinking, 'Get it to the net and anything can happen.'"
As Ekholm wound up for a slap shot, Arvidsson moved from the right of Ducks goaltender John Gibson to the front of the crease and turned his back to Ekholm. The puck arrived at the same time and struck him on the right calf. Gibson looked to his right, but the puck went to his left, to Josi in the right circle.
"I saw [Johansen] moved it to [Ekholm], so I just tried to get in front as quick as I could," Arvidsson said. "I just tried to screen [Gibson] as much as needed. Lucky it hit me and went right on [Josi's] tape."
Before Gibson and two Ducks defenders could recover, Josi shot the puck into an open net. The Predators had a 2-1 lead with 2:43 remaining. The goal held up as the winner.
What looked like an accident was no accident. It was a product of practice, skill and will.
"You have to be not afraid to go there," Arvidsson said. "It's going to hurt. You've got to be prepared to get hit or cross-checked or slashed. I like it. I don't mind it. If I'm going to be on the power play, I'll be in any spot they put me. I just try to do my best."
Arvidsson is like a Swedish Dino Ciccarelli. He is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds; Ciccarelli, a Hockey Hall of Fame member famous for enduring abuse in front of the net, was 5-10, 185. You don't have to be big to get the job done if you have sharp hand-eye coordination, deft timing and an (un)healthy disregard for your own well-being.
"Even though he's smaller in size, he does a really good job taking goalies' eyes away," said Rinne, who is 6-5, 217. "Goalies have to be a little bit hunched over a lot of the time, so not every time you can look over him or above him. He does a really good job and is very effective."
The Predators selected Arvidsson in the fourth round (No. 112) of the 2014 NHL Draft, after Swedish scout Lucas Bergman spent three years vouching for the tenacious son of a potato farmer from Skelleftea, a tiny town in northern Sweden, according to Sportsnet.
Arvidsson, 24, had 55 points (22 goals, 33 assists) in 70 games with Milwaukee of the American Hockey League in 2014-15. He had 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) with Nashville as a rookie last season, then broke out with 61 points (31 goals, 30 assists) in 80 games with Nashville this season.
He has eight points (two goals, six assists) in 13 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But he didn't receive an assist on a goal in Game 2 on Sunday, when he screened Gibson so well on a power play that Gibson had no idea where the puck was. Forward James Neal had time to receive a pass at the side of the net and stickhandle the puck across the goal line.
"That's a tough job," Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "But there's certain guys that really enjoy that role, and he's one of those guys that he likes to get his nose dirty."
No wonder they cheer for him.