ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — After a 3 1/2-month sprint from the bottom of the NHL to the top of the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks realize they don’t get any chance to catch their breath.
A first-round matchup with the powerful Nashville Predators could undo all of that hard work in a hurry.
Two tough-nosed Western Conference teams meet in the first round beginning Friday night in Anaheim. Both are hoping to punctuate their midseason surges with playoff success.
“Anaheim, they’re kind of like us,” Nashville center Mike Fisher said. “They played really well down the stretch, the last half (of the season). A really good hockey team.”
The Ducks got home-ice advantage with their fourth straight Pacific Division title, but their rewards are 1,800-mile flights to Tennessee to face a dangerous opponent. Despite a midseason lull, Nashville stayed competitive in the brutal Central Division, finishing fourth with 96 points — 18 more than the Pacific’s fourth-place team, Arizona.
Coach Bruce Boudreau sees a collision of strengths in this series, from the centers to the goalies.
“They’re really strong down the middle,” Boudreau said. “We think with (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Ryan) Kesler and (Nate) Thompson, we feel we’re very strong down the middle. It’ll be a very interesting contest there.”
The Predators have been known for stingy, defense-dominated strategies over the years, but second-year coach Peter Laviolette has injected offensive acumen into his club.
Meanwhile, the usually high-flying Ducks unexpectedly won the Jennings Trophy this season as the NHL’s stingiest defensive team, repeatedly shutting down opponents in front of its stellar goalie tandem of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen.
“We’re hopefully playing a brand of hockey that we want to play going into the playoffs here,” Getzlaf said. “Any time you can limit scoring chances and those things, it (boosts) our chances to win.”
Here are some more things to watch when the clubs get it going at Honda Center:
LAST MEETING: The Ducks and Predators met in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, with Nashville earning the first playoff series victory in franchise history despite six goals from Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne. Only three Ducks remain from that series: Getzlaf, Corey Perry and defenseman Cam Fowler. “It was a tight series … but it was a big series,” Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said. The Predators reached the second round for the first time in franchise history, but have never gone farther.
RYJO EFFECT: The Predators go into the postseason with a true first-line center in Ryan Johansen for the first time in their nine playoff appearances. Nashville swapped defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus for Johansen on Jan. 6, and Johansen scored eight goals and 26 assists in 42 games with the Predators. Nashville ranked 18th averaging 2.55 goals per game, and was held to two goals or less in 21 games. Since the trade, Nashville ranked 11th, averaging 2.90 goals per game.
UNFAMILIAR FACES: These teams haven’t met since Nov. 17, when Nashville finished the three-game season series with its second victory. Both teams have changed significantly since then, with Nashville adding Johansen and the Ducks picking up a wealth of complementary players, including high-scoring forward David Perron, who is expected to return from injury against the Preds. The Ducks also played largely terrible hockey until Christmas, when they dramatically righted their season. “Obviously, they were struggling,” Nashville defenseman Shea Weber said. “I think everyone around the league was kind of surprised how they were doing. We knew it was just a matter of time before they turned it around.”
THEY CALL HIM SCORESBERG: Forward Filip Forsberg led the Predators with 64 points and tied the franchise record with 33 goals this season. He also led the NHL with 12 goals in February, a stretch that coincided with the start of Nashville’s team-record 14-game point streak.