ANAHEIM, Calif. — Both the Anaheim Ducks and their fans showed up late for the start of the Western Conference finals. Hundreds of empty orange seats ringed the rink while the Nashville Predators largely dominated the first two periods of their 3-2 overtime victory.
At least the fans had Southern California's murderous Friday afternoon traffic as a good excuse. The Ducks have built their season on a remarkable resilience, but they realize they probably can't make another tardy start in Game 2 tonight against Nashville, the Stanley Cup playoffs' best team so far.
"To start the game, it didn't feel like the conference finals, to be honest," Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said Saturday after a short practice at the Ducks' training rink. "I think a lot of things played a factor into it, but emotionally, we didn't start the game like we needed to. From the flipside, the positive is we lost in overtime, so I think we were able to weather the storm in terms of how (Nashville) came out."
The Ducks would never blame their fan base for their own sluggishness. Unfortunately, it's kind of their thing.
From autumn to spring, both home and away, slow starts have been a regular theme over the past two seasons for the Ducks, who have relied to an extraordinary degree on their veteran ability to rally when it really matters.
Anaheim famously turned last season's horrific start into a Pacific Division title, but then lost a seven-game series in the first round to Nashville by dropping the first two games and Game 7, all at home.
The Ducks started this season slowly as well, but surged down the stretch to a fifth straight division crown and a first-round sweep of Calgary. Anaheim then promptly lost two straight home games to Edmonton before rallying desperately to win the second-round series in Game 7 .
The Ducks do almost nothing easily. They had to make an unprecedentedly late rally from a three-goal deficit to beat the Oilers in Game 5 at home.
In total, Anaheim has held a lead for less than 24 minutes in the past 255 minutes of game time over its last five outings.
"I don't think you can put it any other way: We need to emotionally get ourselves involved in the game right away," Cogliano said.
Just two days after surviving Edmonton, the Ducks had to face Nashville in an early-starting game — and they were promptly outskated and outclassed for long stretches by the well-rested Predators. Anaheim still rallied to force overtime on Hampus Lindholm's clutch third-period goal , but James Neal ended it for Nashville .
The Ducks see the problem as largely mental, and they intend to address it in the hours before the series resumes.
"Starts in the playoffs are huge," Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler said. "It gave them a lot of momentum and sucked the life out of us, so we need to make sure that we turn that around (in Game 2)."
The Predators have been a model of consistency while going 9-2 in the postseason, and they think much of the credit should be placed on a defensive corps that might be the best in the playoffs. While Neal scored the winner, he was only open to score on P.K. Subban's pass because the defenseman froze the entire Anaheim defense with a picture-perfect shot fake.
"Usually when I get the puck in those types of positions, everybody is expecting me to shoot it," Subban said. "I just wound up, took a look, and everybody was diving, and legs were trying to get in the way of the shot. Everybody talks about the pass, but you can't make the pass unless the guy makes the effort to get open and create that lane. (Neal) did a good job getting open."
Subban, who hoped to have a cupcake Saturday to celebrate his 28th birthday, is regularly dazzling his teammates during the Predators' playoff run. He's eager to remind everyone that he's only one component of a defensive group that has driven the Predators to these unprecedented postseason heights.
While the injury-riddled Ducks are attempting to thrive with six defensemen under 26 years old, Nashville's top four defensemen are the high-scoring backbone of its roster. With fundamentally sound defensive play and plenty of offensive flash, Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are a big reason why the Predators are in position to take early control of their franchise's first conference finals with a second road victory.
Nashville showed its own resilience in Game 1 after a third period described by coach Peter Laviolette as their worst in a long while.
"We just stayed with it," Josi said. "Nobody panicked. I thought we had a really good start, really good first period, and then they scored the first goal. We just kept coming at them and had a lot of chances. Great job by our guys staying calm and getting the win."