In Game Five of the Western Conference Final, the Nashville Predators faced their biggest bout of adversity yet. No problem.
Pontus Aberg tallied the winner in the third period and the Predators defeated the Anaheim Ducks by a 3-1 count in Game Five to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Nashville is now just one win away from reaching their first Stanley Cup Final as they gutted out one of their most complete victories of the postseason without their two top centerman.
After Ryan Johansen suffered a thigh injury in Game Four that ended his season, and with Captain Mike Fisher out for Game Five as well, the Preds regrouped up front and found new ways to shut the Ducks down.
"You'd like to have a full and healthy lineup, but that's not what happened," Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "We had guys show up and play extremely hard today and hard fought. This is a tough building to play in against a good team, a veteran team, and we're able to walk away with a win."
"It was a great win," forward Austin Watson said. "Missing Joey and Fish, two incredible hockey players for our team… those are two tough guys to miss out of our lineup. But it's next man up in here, [we're] ready to go and I thought it was a great win."
A scoreless first period led to a change to start the second, with Jonathan Bernier taking over in goal for the Ducks in place of John Gibson, who left with a lower-body injury. It was Anaheim who got on the board first when Chris Wagner capitalized on a rebound in front, but just before the frame was out, No. 33 in white cashed in. On a late power play, Colin Wilson backhanded his second of the postseason home past Bernier at the 19:19 mark to even the score, a big boost for Nashville before the intermission.
Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Wilson chips in PPG off the post
Then, it was Filip Forsberg who led a rush midway through the third, and after Bernier stopped the initial shot, Aberg followed it up with a reach around the Ducks goaltender to slide the puck over the line to give Nashville the lead. Pekka Rinne put on a show during the 60 minutes - just as he's done so many times in these playoffs - and Watson threw home an empty-netter to put the Preds one win closer to the ultimate prize.
Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Aberg lays out to net go-ahead goal
"I think we said it all year; whatever 20 guys go out there, we're fully confident in the group we have going," Watson said. "For guys like Freddie Gaudreau to come in and play the way that he did, for guys to just step up and maybe take on some more minutes; that was a huge win for us tonight."
Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Watson buries long empty-netter
There's no sense in refusing to think about it - the Predators know what will be at stake on Monday in Nashville, and while they don't want to get ahead of themselves, the longest-tenured member of the club says it's not a bad thing to ponder what might be next.
"I think it's good to think about those things and visualize," Rinne said. "You think about it, and we all know that it's nothing but a Game Six for us. If we win it, we're in the Final. If we lose it, we come back here, and we don't want to do that. It's a big game for us, and it feels good to go home to play in front of our own fans."
Depth Comes Through:
Prior to Game Five, Pontus Aberg only had 25 games of NHL experience to his name, including the playoffs. But that's the captivating aspect of this time of the year - when one player goes down, another steps up.
The Predators were without the services of Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher on Saturday in Anaheim, a blow that wouldn't have been easy for any team to overcome. However, Nashville found a way to put the Ducks on the brink of elimination without their leading scorer or their captain.
"I think facing adversity today, we knew that coming into tonight, we knew that we had to just come together, play well defensively, grind it out and I felt that's what we did," Rinne said. "[We] showed a lot of character. I feel like for us, the first couple of rounds were fairly smooth sailing and things were going our way and every series you deal with adversity. Right now, it's something that every team is going to face and I think we handled it really well."
It was thanks to players like Aberg, who scored the winner at 11:01 of the third period, the first playoff goal of his career. It's been said that good things happen when one goes to the net, and after losing a tooth on the shift before, that's all Aberg had to do.
"I just tried to bring my game up there," Aberg said. "We're missing two huge players for this team, and I played with really good players today, [Forsberg and Colton Sissons], and it felt pretty good."
Frederick Gaudreau was another who got the call, skating in the first postseason game of his career and looking like he had done it a hundred times before.
"I had goosebumps," Gaudreau said after the game. "It's just a dream, and to be able to be part of that, it's really special for sure."
The dream will continue for the Predators. And in the biggest game in franchise history - until the next one - Nashville simply found a way, just as they've now done 11 times in the 2017 postseason.
Video: Aberg, Rinne lift Preds past Ducks in Game 5, 3-1
Preds Captain Mike Fisher did not play in Game Five after he left Game Four. After Game Five, Head Coach Peter Laviolette called Fisher's injury day-to-day.
Forward Frederick Gaudreau made his Stanley Cup Playoff debut in Game Five, skating 11:40 of ice time and going 10-for-14 in the face-off circle.
Game Six between the Predators and Ducks is set for Monday night at 7 p.m. (CT) at Bridgestone Arena. If necessary, Game Seven would come on Wednesday evening in Anaheim.
Tickets to Game Six are available for purchase right now. Click here to get your seats.