Holy cow! It’s hard to believe we’re only two games into the Western Conference Final. It feels like we’ve been at this for a month already. First, we have an early start for game one in Anaheim. This created an issue where the Honda Center was practically empty for the start of the game (just for those of you defending the traffic claim…it was empty for James Neal’s game winner in OT as well). Not to be outdone, Game Two was Pekka Rinne’s worst game of the playoffs followed by some scathing remarks from Predator’s center, Ryan Johansen, as illustrated by NHL.com’s Tim Campbell.
Bottom line is this, Nashville only had to go into Anaheim and steal one game to obtain home ice advantage, which they did with Game One. However, Game Two’s performance, coupled with the off-ice remarks and it’s clear heading into tonight’s Game Three match up, the Ducks clearly have the momentum. Despite the fact that Anaheim is about to experience something they can’t possibly imagine with the fanbase in Nashville inside of Bridgestone Arena, the thought has got to be come out on the ice and just play nasty enough to goad the Preds into making poor decisions, both with the puck and away from play to start taking foolish penalties.
This is where coaching will have to take center stage tonight. Preds head coach, Peter Laviolette is going to have to have his team mentally prepared to shrug off the shenanigans from the likes of Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry. He’s also going to have to master the chess game within the hockey game of pairing up his skaters with those that are rolled out by Anaheim’s bench boss, Randy Carlyle. First and foremost, he’s going to have most likely Nashville captain, Mike Fisher starting each shift face-to-face with Kesler when possible. This will bring up another glaring issue that has plagued the Preds against the Ducks, which is faceoffs. As has been the case this whole season and into the playoffs, the Ducks are the best faceoff team in the league. Matching up Fisher, Johansen or even Gnash won’t mean a hill of beans if Anaheim continues to school the Preds in the faceoff circle where they can skate the puck back, make a change and bring the puck up the ice.
Finally, there’s you. The fans. The 7th Man. The national writers have all been commenting on the atmosphere created by the Preds faithful inside of Bridgestone as being the absolute best in the league. Two weeks ago, ESPN hockey analyst, Barry Melrose even had the following to say about Nashville’s Stanley Cup run, “If Nashville goes to the Stanley Cup finals it will be the best Stanley Cup finals we’ve ever had. That’s how good the city of Nashville has been.” On the Predators fan page on Facebook, I said that tonight has to be something special. Something, that even as fans who have been to every game, has to boil from a place where no one could ever imagine existed from within each of the 20,000 that walk into Bridgestone tonight.
People will want to boo Kesler, and quite frankly, I can’t blame them. However, he thrives on being hated. He loves the fact that RyJo made the comments that he did, even going so far to say, “It seems like he’s [Johansen] a bit rattled, so I’m just going to go out and play my game like I always do.” This could also be read as, “He’s on tilt and I’m going to go out and push the envelope even further to see what I can get away with.”
I have talked with Steve Ott on several occasions during our time in Dallas. Otter was the same kind of player (Kesler actually has a decent level of skill compared to Ott), and he absolutely loves the reactions he gets from opposing fans on the road. So, you know Kesler will absolutely embrace the boos. What I don’t think he can handle is if every time he’s out on the ice, the 7th Man rains down a “Let’s Go Preds” chant until he hops back on to the bench. During my first NHL draft, I stood where the net would go on the ice and when the Devils pick came up, there were over 15,000 people chanting, “Let’s Go Devils” all in unison. It makes the hair on my arms stand up just thinking about it.
Guess what, Smashville…<whispers> you’re better than New Jersey.
“Let’s Go Preds! Let’s Go Preds!” Every second Kesler’s skates are on the ice, rattle his equilibrium. Make him dizzy. Hell, make him want to take shifts off so he doesn’t have to listen to it. While we’re at it, perhaps we can get Johansen to sing the national anthem while we’re at it.