ANAHEIM, Calif. – When James Neal has the puck on his stick for a wide open one-timer, Nashville Predators players are accustomed to the red light going off behind the opposing goaltender.
Neal has one of the NHL’s best shots and his Nashville teammates have seen him blast it numerous times, mostly with positive results.
“When the ‘Real Deal’ has (the puck) on tape, it’s a goal,” said Predators forward Filip Forsberg, paying homage to Neal’s nickname.
Added defenseman Mattias Ekholm, “I get pretty happy that it’s him (shooting the puck) and maybe him or one or two more guys who is really good at it or shooting it and putting it back in the net. He’s got that knack for scoring and that knack for the big moments. I really think he’s one of those guys and he showed it tonight.”
Neal’s overtime winner at the 9:24 mark capped a strong Game 1 Western Conference Final performance by the Predators that saw them out-chance and mostly outplay the Anaheim Ducks in a 3-2 victory. Nashville took 46 shots on goal to Anaheim’s 29 and attempted 16 more shots than the Ducks.
Overall Nashville’s game-winner was indicative of how the game went for the Predators over the Ducks, with Nashville being just a hair quicker than Anaheim overall.
Ekholm zipped into the zone around the Ducks’ defense and created a scoring chance before giving the puck to Predators defenseman P.K. Subban who found Neal wide open for the shot. Going into Game 1, the Predators hadn’t played since Sunday after taking care of the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the second-round, which enabled the Predators to rest and prepare for their next opponent.
Meanwhile the Ducks blew their chance to end their second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers on the same day in a 7-1 loss, setting up an emotional Game 7 win Wednesday, which seemed to take quite a bit of energy from the group.
Predators players could tell from ice level that they seemed to be moving better than their opponents overall.
“I felt pretty good. I think all my teammates looked pretty good too, just the skating part of the game and then just logging the mail and getting up ice and closing gaps and all that kind of stuff,” Ekholm said. “I think those four days, five days we got was perfect. We don’t want more, we don’t want less. I think that’s the ideal number of days off and we feel really good.”
Added Nashville center Ryan Johansen, “For whatever reason if they were a little fatigued from last series or if we were moving well and making good decisions, that’s stuff that we’ll look at that made us successful. Hopefully they weren’t fatigued and we were just controlling the play.”
Part of the reason why Nashville finished off their previous series early was because they won Game 1 on the road and forced their opponents to play from behind. This was the third straight series Nashville won Game 1 away from Bridgestone Arena emboldening the Predators’ soaring confidence while potentially putting doubt in Anaheim’s mind.
“You know, Game 1 is a huge opportunity to take home ice advantage back, and that’s what we’re going out there trying to do,” Neal said. “That’s what we did tonight, and it was a great win.’
The Predators entered the postseason with the eighth-best record of playoff teamA in the Western Conference but have played the best overall hockey the last month with a 9-2 record. If Nashville also has more stamina at this juncture, it could make the match-up more difficult for Anaheim – a group that has played well, but hasn’t performed with the same type of consistency as the Predators.
Of course, if the Ducks come back with a spirited Game 2 on Sunday, the complexion of this round could change. The Predators know they have the upper hand but can’t be too cocky.
“We were lucky to have a couple more days of rest than them so they had a tough series there with Edmonton obviously going seven games and stuff,” Johansen said. “That’ll take a toll on you but we were just focused on our game and how we needed to play and we’ll look at some more stuff to polish up our game, but we’re going to keep pounding away and make it as difficult as we can for them.”
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