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ANAHEIM, CALIF.—The Anaheim Ducks were down a game in the Western Conference final and down 2-0 in Game 2 against Pekka Rinne, the most dominant goalie in these Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s when Sami Vatanen got the puck and thought he saw a sliver of room over Rinne’s shoulder.
“So I just closed my eyes and shot it in there,” Vatanen said with his usual Finnish deadpan delivery.
After slow starts and tight games over their past month, not much can ruffle these Ducks. Once they found a crack, they started a deluge that evened the series.
Nick Ritchie broke a tie late in the second period, and Anaheim roared back from that early two-goal deficit for a 5-3 victory Sunday night.
Just when the Ducks appeared to be in danger of opening with two straight home losses for the second straight series, they scored four goals in less than 19 minutes.
“Everybody says we go about it the hard way, but as long as we get the job done,” shrugged Ducks netminder John Gibson, who stopped 30 shots.
Vatanen, Jakob Silfverberg and Ondrej Kase also scored for the Ducks before Antoine Vermette added an empty-netter. The Predators hadn’t allowed four goals in any game during their Stanley Cup playoff run before Anaheim buried five in front of a sellout crowd.
“I wish we didn’t get down in the first place, but I think we have three or four lines that get going and just keep punching through,” Ducks forward Rickard Rakell said. “It’s almost like we feel, ‘Oh, we’ve got nothing to lose now.’ It’s almost like that’s when we play our best game. Maybe sometimes we shouldn’t wait for that to get going.”
Game 3 goes Tuesday night in Nashville.
Rinne finished with 22 saves and Ryan Johansen, James Neal and Filip Forsberg scored for the Predators. They faced relatively little adversity while steamrolling Chicago and St. Louis in the first two rounds on the way to the first conference final in franchise history.
Nashville has a serious challenge now, and adversity has arrived in the form of Ryan Kesler, the Ducks’ defence-minded centre. Johansen had a goal and an assist, but Kesler’s physical play already has burrowed under his skin.
“I mean, it just blows my mind watching,” Johansen said. “I don’t know what’s going through his head over there. Like his family and his friends watching him play, I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that. It just doesn’t make sense how he plays the game. I’m just trying to go out there and play hockey, and it sucks when you’ve got to pull a stick out of your groin every shift.”
Two days after Nashville’s 3-2 overtime victory at the Honda Center in the series opener, Johansen and Neal scored in the opening 8:32 of Game 2.
The Ducks eventually got around to replying with high-octane hockey — and a few fortunate bounces — that was too much even for Rinne, who hadn’t given up four goals in a game since March 13.
“The second (period), they got to control the tempo of the game and had the puck a little bit more, and obviously that plays into their hands,” Rinne said. “But we still battled back. Obviously, disappointed personally in that second period.”
Ritchie, the power forward playing deep in the post-season for the first time, scored the winning goal in Game 7 against Edmonton. Four days later, he scored on a high shot that appeared to glance off Rinne’s mask on the way in.
Anaheim hung on through a frenetic third period, surviving a few mad scrambles before captain Ryan Getzlaf notched his third assist of the night on Vermette’s empty-netter.