ANAHEIM, Calif.--A little more than five months ago the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators faced off for the Western Conference championship and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, an intriguing matchup between the Pacific division-winning Ducks and the No. 8-seeded Predators, who had shockingly swept Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. When the Ducks and Predators met again Friday, neither was sitting in a top-eight spot in the West.
A lot has changed for both teams, as neither has consistently played its best this season. The Ducks have been plagued by injuries, notably to top centers Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler and winger Patrick Eaves. The Predators, who beat the Ducks to win the West but lost the Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game Final, had some turnover and could be experiencing the emotional letdown that follows a long but unsuccessful playoff run.
But at least one aspect of their rivalry stayed the same: The Predators claimed supremacy. The Ducks made it easy for them this time.
Nashville raced out to a big lead while the Ducks fumbled their way through a terrible first period, and the Predators earned a 5-3 victory Friday night before a crowd of 16,523 at Honda Center. The Ducks dropped to 6-6-1 on what had been designated as Country Night, complete with country music and giveaway cowboy hats. All the sad songs were sung by the Ducks, who couldn't complete two good passes in the first period and didn't muster the necessary effort to remain competitive while their elite players heal.
"Let's face it, we're not in a position where we can score four and five goals a night. Our offense is challenged right now," Coach Randy Carlyle said. "We have to have that workmanlike game, and when you score three you should win."
They fell behind 3-0 before their offense stirred. "We didn't come out like we wanted to in the first period. No emotions, really, and that's something we need to clean up," defenseman Hampus Lindholm said.
That's unacceptable. Injuries rob almost every team of scoring depth or skill at one time or another. The fallback is determination, grit, rallying around who's left and not lamenting who's gone. The Ducks didn't go to Plan B and they couldn't explain why.
"I don't know why that is," Lindholm said. "I think you just have to look at yourself in the mirror and see what you can do yourself to get motivated to get out there and just play as hard as you can."
That mirror came out too late. The first period sunk them, as it often has this season.
The Ducks squandered two power plays in the first period, another familiar theme; they're two for 31 with the man advantage at home. In the meantime, the Predators took a 2-0 lead when Roman Josi's shot deflected off the right foot of Scott Hartnell and into the net at 6:26 and when Josi moved in for a shot that caromed off the inside of the right post and past John Gibson at 19:11. "It was like we were caught in a funk for the first 20 minutes and we didn't demonstrate any emotion that was necessary. We didn't outwork the hockey club and we received the game," Carlyle said.
Nashville increased its lead to 3-0 at 3:05 of the second period, after Frederick Gaudreau won a faceoff from Ducks center Dennis Rasmussen in the Ducks' zone. Gaudreau drew it back to Yannick Weber, who passed it across to Matt Irwin for a shot that got past a crowd in front and past Gibson. The Ducks cut their deficit to 3-1 at 4:24, when Antoine Vermette -- stationed by the right post -- finished off a passing play set up by Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie, but the Predators took a 4-1 lead at 17:20 of the period, while Ducks winger Nick Ritchie served his third minor penalty of the game. Mattias Ekholm set up Viktor Arvidsson for a one-timer at the top of the left circle, and the puck fluttered past Gibson for a power-play goal.
The Ducks got one back before the period ended after Rickard Rakell won the faceoff from Colton Sissons and got the puck to Lindholm, whose blast found its way past Pekka Rinne at 19:45 off the period. And Ducks right wing Jakob Silfverberg, who scored a career-best 23 goals last season, scored his second goal of this season when he pounced on the rebound of a shot by Derek Grant that had caromed off the end boards and took a sharp-angle shot that snaked between Rinne's left shoulder and the post. But Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban sealed it with an empty-net goal -- assisted by Rinne -- at 19:42 of the third.
"We proved we can play, for the last half of the game, with the lineup that we have," Wagner said. "We've done it in certain games at certain times but I don't know if we've played a full 60 like that, which is frustrating at a group."
With the second half of a back-to-back sequence beckoning on Saturday, they had no time for frustration, just time to think of a solution.
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