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Sunday, April 24, 2011
Patience finally pays off for Predators

By Pierre LeBrun

Predators 3, Ducks 2: Nashville wins series 4-2

Few people have done more with less than GM David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz in Nashville since the Predators came into the league.

Through shrewd drafting, patient developing and excellent coaching, the Predators have been a competitive team for several years despite their frugal limitations on the payroll. But they lacked one glaring achievement: a playoff series victory.

Nick Spaling's two goals Sunday made sure history would be made in the Music City as the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks 4-2 at a rocking Bridgestone Arena to cap a six-game series and clinch the franchise's first second-round berth.

No doubt Preds fans had a flashback with 38 seconds left Sunday when Anaheim center Saku Koivu took an interference penalty to give Nashville a man advantage while protecting a 3-2 lead. Sound familiar? A year ago the Hawks were in the same spot in Game 5 at Chicago, the Hawks' Marian Hossa in the box for the rest of the third period and the Preds nursing a one-goal lead and the chance to head back to Nashville up 3-2 in the series over the eventual Cup champions. Instead, Patrick Kane scored against all odds to force overtime and Hossa won it in overtime. The Preds stewed all summer long about that heartbreaking change of events.

On Sunday, in the same situation, the Ducks didn't get a sniff. The Preds had learned their lesson. And they're finally in the second round.

Those who picked the Preds to beat the Ducks in the four/five Western Conference matchup largely based their prediction on Pekka Rinne being the difference-maker in the series. As it turned out, the Vezina Trophy finalist was not the No. 1 reason for Nashville beating Anaheim and that's nothing short of a surprise. Rinne gave up 19 goals in six games and was even pulled once. I'm not saying he was poor, because he certainly wasn't. On Sunday, he was terrific. But overall, he wasn't the biggest factor for Nashville winning.

Shea Weber and Ryan Suter for my money were the biggest factor. It was hardly a secret that they would match up with Anaheim's big line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan in this series. And while those three Ducks stars had some big moments in the series, including Ryan's goal of the year, I believe Weber/Suter won that key matchup and hence the series. In fact, by Sunday's Game 6, Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle had taken Ryan off the top line to try and spread the offense, and I think to keep at least one of his stars away from Weber/Suter.

Spaling and Jordin Tootoo were also big factors, especially in the past two games. The linemates terrorized the Ducks with their speed and forecheck. What a story it is especially to see Tootoo have this kind of playoff after missing more than a month in midseason having entered the NHL's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. Nice to see a player seek help and turn his life around like that.

The Ducks, meanwhile, will ponder the opportunity missed. They had a third-period lead Friday night in Game 5 after Ryan's highlight goal but found a way to blow that one. There's just no excuse for that. Not helping the cause was the revelation that star defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky was playing through an injury that severely limited his effectiveness.

Still, Anaheim was one of the league's hottest teams down the stretch, so much so that the three top seeds in the West privately wanted no part of the Ducks as a first-round matchup. Well, they won't have to now.