Heading into a pivotal Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in Nashville on Thursday, the Nashville Predators have an opportunity to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series, while the Anaheim Ducks will try to even the series and turn this into a best-of-three.
Nashville was dominant in Game 3, doubling up Anaheim in shots on goal as it forged through two disallowed goals and superb goaltending from John Gibson to outright own the latter half of the third period. The Predators managed to hold the Ducks without a shot for most of the final frame, even when Anaheim pulled Gibson for the extra attacker.
"I just don't think Anaheim can handle Nashville's speed," said Bernie Nicholls, a former 70-goal scorer who averaged over a point per game in his career. "The way they're trying to stop them [is] to be physical with them, which you have to be. But it's tough to hit something that you can't catch."
He compared Nashville's speed, aggressiveness and depth with that of the Pittsburgh Penguins during their triumphant dash to the Stanley Cup last season.
The Ducks were unable to apply much pressure on the forecheck in Game 3, as Nashville's defense broke the puck out quickly to supporting forwards. Anaheim also had limited offensive-zone time, sustaining few possessions and creating little in the way of dangerous scoring chances. On the flip side, Nashville created more on the forecheck than in previous games and had numerous extended forays into the Ducks' zone.
"When Nashville was in the zone, there were times where you thought they were on the power play," Nicholls said. "They kept the puck in Anaheim's zone for long periods of time, and there was nothing Anaheim could do about it."
Beyond Nashville's superior speed, the Predators' mobility and offensive scheme also posed challenges for the Ducks.
"The system allows us to move around and switch positions," Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "All six of us back there have offensive ability to join the rush and to be up there to help out offensively. The way hockey is today, you're not going to create a lot. Everyone's so good at defending. You've got to try to create an odd-man situation up ice, be joining, get down the wall or try to create something."
Though their defense responded effectively, Anaheim's forwards appeared a step slow in all three zones Tuesday, including the defensive end, through which Nashville roamed unfettered in key stages of the game.
"As much as they're moving the puck around, the players are moving too," Nicholls said. "You've got defensemen down in the corners pinching, rotating. They're cycling so well as a five-man unit, not just three."
All that said, the Ducks have a knack for drawing even. In last year's first-round series with Nashville, they fell behind 2-0 but evened the series 2-2 before forcing a Game 7, just as they did against the Edmonton Oilers in this year's second round. Tying this series presents a unique challenge, as the Predators have won 10 consecutive home playoff games, the longest such streak since the Colorado Avalanche won 11 straight in 1996-97.
"A lot of times, when we have the puck we tend to kind of throw it away rather than making a play and just come back and regroup. We get caught flat-footed and stretching," said Ducks winger Jakob Silfverberg. "I think we've got to play with more confidence."