James Neal

‘Our guys know the big picture’: Preds aren’t satisfied with spot in Stanley Cup Final

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Nashville Predators, the final team into the NHL playoffs, are headed to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

Coach Peter Laviolette insists they won’t just be happy to be there either.

“Our guys know the big picture,” Laviolette said. “They understand what it is that we’re trying to do here. And when that time comes, we’ll be ready.”

Colton Sissons scored a hat trick with his third goal the game-winner with 6:00 left, and goalie Pekka Rinne made 38 saves as the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks 6-3 on Monday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

Now the team no one outside of Nashville expected to be here is waiting to face either defending champion Pittsburgh or Ottawa for the Stanley Cup. Game 1 is Monday.

No matter what happens next, the Predators already have turned in a thrilling run this postseason as just the third franchise seeded last in its conference to reach the Final since the NHL went to the current conference-based playoff format in 1994. The Edmonton Oilers lost to Laviolette’s Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, while the Kings beat New Jersey in six in 2012.

They also are the eighth team in the past 15 seasons to reach the Stanley Cup Final after finishing the regular season outside the top 10 in the final standings.

Nashville’s magical run started by sweeping the West’s No. 1 seed in Chicago. The Predators downed St. Louis in six to reach their first conference finals, and now they’ve knocked off the Pacific Division champ in Anaheim, which lost for the second time in three years in the Western finals.

Goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Predators’ longest tenured-player at 34, called the victory an amazing feeling.

“It’s a funny thing though,” Rinne said. “Everything that is happening around us, you still feel hungry and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It’s a pretty amazing feeling and you’re working for that for a long, long time. I feel like the last number of years, we’ve been going in that direction, building this team and having more depth.”

That depth has paid off, particularly the last two games after losing top center Ryan Johansen after Game 4 to emergency surgery on his left thigh. Captain Mike Fisher, the only player on the roster who has played in the Stanley Cup Final with Ottawa in 2007, also missed those two games with an upper-body injury.

Forward Kevin Fiala broke his left leg in the second round.

Laviolette simply tapped Nashville’s pipeline and has tied the NHL’s all-time mark using 18 forwards this postseason. Sissons is the latest to respond. The 23-year-old center was scoreless in the 2016 playoffs and had 10 points in 58 games during the regular season. Now he has 10 points this postseason.

“I don’t think I even dreamt of this moment, scoring a hat trick in the Western Conference clinching game, but I can’t speak enough for just our whole group,” Sissons said. “We’ve been through some challenges together and we stuck together no matter what, just always believed and here we are.”

Now Laviolette is the first coach since 1994 and the fourth overall to take three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final , joining Scotty Bowman, Dick Irvin and Mike Keenan.

“Probably means that I got fired a lot,” Laviolette said with a chuckle. “I’m fortunate to be here working and fortunate (general manager) David Poile gave me a job. And when you do that, you’re not thinking about things like that, you’re just thinking about coming to work.”

Now Music City stands ready to show the NHL how to chase hockey’s ultimate trophy in star-studded fashion.

The Predators have had a different national anthem singer for each playoff game ranging from Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan to Trisha Yearwood. The singer’s identity is a well-guarded secret. NFL stars like Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, PGA golfer Brandt Snedeker and former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George have revved up crowds for a raucous party each game.

Fans filled the plaza outside the arena and the park across the street during the game before pouring onto the street lined with honky-tonks to celebrate. Forward James Neal said the Predators’ fans are special and now everyone in the hockey world is getting to see them.

“It’s hard to describe and it’s an amazing feeling to win this, and we’re not done,” Neal said.

‘Nothing’s going to be easy’ for the Preds, especially after the loss of Ryan Johansen

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The oddsmakers didn’t give the Nashville Predators much of a chance when the Stanley Cup playoffs began last month.

The Predators were considered one of the long shots to win it all, at 25/1, according to Bovada. No big surprise, given they were the second wild card team in the West and facing the No. 1 seed Chicago Blackhawks — also the favorites to win the championship when the playoffs began — in the opening round.

Since then, the Predators have swept the Blackhawks and advanced past the St. Louis Blues to make the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history.

They have played relentless hockey, backed for the most part by great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, an elite and productive group of defensemen, particularly Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, and a top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. Those seven players have combined for 71 points, which accounts for a substantial majority of Nashville’s offensive production.

On Thursday, the Predators fell one goal short of putting the Anaheim Ducks on the brink of elimination and moving within one win of the Stanley Cup Final. On Friday, the series shifted back to Anaheim tied at 2-2. On the surface, that’s not a bad position for the Predators to find themselves in.

However, Nashville’s Stanley Cup hopes were dealt a massive blow, with news that Johansen underwent emergency thigh surgery and is now done for the playoffs. Just like that, the Predators’ top center and playoff points leader removed from the lineup. Making matters worse is the fact captain Mike Fisher, who still doesn’t have a point in these playoffs, was also hurt Thursday. There was no update on his status the following day.

The Predators were already facing depth issues at center with Johansen out. If Fisher can’t play Saturday, it only adds to the current problem. It’s been widely suggested that if Johansen AND Fisher are both out, Calle Jarnkrok could be put into the No. 1 center spot.

Jarnkrok had a decent regular season with 15 goals and 31 points in 81 games. But he has only two points in 13 games during these playoffs and only five points in 33 career post-season games. His production has been a far cry from that of Johansen, who leads the team with 2.68 points per 60 minutes in these playoffs and a player for which most of the offense funnels through.

Others will need to step up. James Neal has five goals and seven points, but more will likely be asked of him with Johansen out. Colin Wilson has in the past emerged as an offensive threat — at least during the playoffs, anyway — but so far has only three points in 10 games this year.

If their offensive attack is limited without Johansen, it may put the spotlight back on the play of Rinne, their goalie. His play was sensational, bordering on out-of-this-world versus the Blackhawks. He posted a save percentage of .976 in that opening-round sweep, and it would be unrealistic to demand he sustain that for an entire playoff run.

He has still played well at times in this series, but the Ducks have also been able to find success. Rinne’s save percentage in four games sits at .911. The Predators may need him to be as close to perfect as possible the rest of the way.

Injuries occur to every team during the playoffs. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins, still alive in the East, as a perfect example. They haven’t had their top defenseman — and one of the best in the league — in Kris Letang for the entire playoff, and have also dealt with a plethora of injuries, including to Sidney Crosby for one game, as this spring has continued.

“Nothing’s going to be easy,” Neal told reporters on Friday. “That’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports.”

A few hours later, the hockey world learned the Predators would have to try to complete this already daunting task without their top center.

Predators avoid Johansen-Kesler drama, but can’t deny bad blood

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If you want a quick summation of how other members of the Nashville Predators reacted to Ryan Johansen bashing Ryan Kesler, consider head coach Peter Laviolette essentially pleading the fifth.

Following Game 2, the Predators generally took that approach to addressing Kesler, who reacted to such comments in a predictable manner himself. Perhaps, then, the more interesting thing is: will Laviolette try to avoid the Johansen vs. Kesler matchup as the series shifts to Nashville for Games 3 and 4?

In vaguer terms, Laviolette addressed that question – and the questions about physicality – on Monday.

“There’s no question they play a physical game. Our team’s been able to do it different ways, play different styles,” Laviolette said. “We have home ice, so we’ll be able to find matchups we want or don’t want a little bit easier. But I think, like I said, our guys, I think they’re accustomed to playing different types of game. To get through Chicago we had to play one way. To get through St. Louis you had to play a different way. So I think the guys will be fine.”

The any style sentiment¬†echoes James Neal‘s thoughts after a Game 1 win.

Now, having the last change is great, but it may often boil down to one difficult Ryan vs. Ryan matchup (Johansen vs. Kesler) to another one that might benefit Anaheim (Johansen vs. Ryan Getzlaf). So, to some extent, the Predators are just going to need to dig deep here.

Colton Sissons probably said it best in considering what’s to come for the Western Conference Final.

“That’s playoffs written all over it,” Sissons said. “Obviously there’s some bad blood there and they’ve been competing hard and battling all series. And it’s only going to get escalated from here.”

*Rubs hands together in excitement.*

Game 3 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App. Click here for the livestream link.

Video: Ryan Johansen leads Predators to perfect start in Game 2

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The Anaheim Ducks vowed a better start in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final.

Those words didn’t carry over into action Sunday, as the Ducks fell behind 2-0 during the first period against the Nashville Predators.

Ryan Johansen continued his strong post-season, opening the scoring by beating John Gibson glove side less than five minutes into the first period.

Related: WATCH LIVE: Predators vs. Ducks – Game 2

Great finish from Johansen, but an even better stretch pass from Viktor Arvidsson — a 31-goal scorer during the regular season and in the final year of his entry-level deal with an annual cap hit of just $631,667.

The Predators followed that up with a goal from James Neal right at the end of a power play, taking a 2-0 lead.

Johansen went from scorer to set-up man, as he gave Neal, the overtime hero from Friday, a beautiful pass at the side of the net, clearly fooling Gibson out of position.

That assist put Johansen up to 13 points in 12 playoff games this spring.

Sami Vatanen got the Ducks on the board with his first goal of the playoffs with a minute remaining in the first period.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule for Sunday, May 14

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The Western Conference Finals continue on Sunday evening when the Anaheim Ducks look to rebound from their overtime loss in Game 1.

James Neal‘s overtime goal gave the Nashville Predators an early 1-0 lead in the series.

Game 2 begins at 7:30 p.m. ET, and you can watch it on NBCSN or online via our Live Stream.

Here is everything you need to know about Sunday’s game.

Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Network: NBCSN (Stream Online Here)

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