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Nashville Predators eliminate St. Louis Blues, advance to Western Conference Finals

By
Bucky Dent, The Sports Xchange
The Nashville Predators beat the St. Louis Blues on Sunday to advance to their first ever Western Conference Final. Photo courtesy Nashville Predators via Twitter.
The Nashville Predators beat the St. Louis Blues on Sunday to advance to their first ever Western Conference Final. Photo courtesy Nashville Predators via Twitter.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pekka Rinne raised both arms in the air to celebrate. An already-loud sellout crowd hit unparalleled decibel levels, even by Bridgestone Arena standards.

That could only mean one thing Sunday: a history-making day for the Nashville Predators.

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Rinne's 23 saves and Ryan Johansen's tiebreaking goal early in the third period lifted Nashville to a series-clinching 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6, advancing the Predators to the Western Conference finals for the first time.

"It's something we haven't done before," said the 34-year old Rinne, the team's longest-tenured player. "Every game in the series was real tight, a lot of one-goal games. It's a great feeling, but there's a lot of work left."

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That work next sends the Predators against either the Edmonton Oilers or the Anaheim Ducks in the conference final.

Game 7 for Nashville looked like a real possibility after one period Sunday. St. Louis led 1-0 on the strength of Paul Stastny's rebound goal at 2:04, his second of the playoffs, and really controlled play.

In a continuation of St. Louis' 2-1 win in Game 5 on Friday, the Blues ceded little room to the Predators in the neutral zone. Nashville had trouble completing simple passing sequences against active sticks, and St. Louis earned plenty of zone time.

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In fact, the Blues put seven shots on net in the first 3:20, seven more than the Predators managed.

"I don't think we started really well tonight," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "There were a lot of shots and a lot of zone time for them. I would have thought we would have started the game a little bit better after Game 5."

Laviolette's team needed only 35 seconds to formulate a response in the second period. Mattias Ekholm teed up fellow defenseman Roman Josi for a snapper from the right circle. The 22-foot shot appeared to hit off the right shoulder of goalie Jake Allen before caroming into the net.

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It was Josi's fourth goal of the playoffs and continued a trend of Predators defensemen supplying scoring. At that point in the series, Nashville backliners had accounted for half of the team's 32 points as well as seven of its goals.

"It's part of our system," Josi said. "Our system allows us to jump up in the play, and the forwards do a great job of getting pucks to us. We have a lot of (defensemen) that can jump up in the play."

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The defense corps having given them a spark, the Predators still needed some production from the top line of Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. After dominating the Chicago Blackhawks in a first-round sweep, the trio had played decently in the second round but hadn't earned the desired results on the scoresheet.

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That changed 3:15 into the third period. Arvidsson slipped a nice pass to Johansen in the high slot. Johansen deked from forehand to backhand and shoveled a short shot past Allen for the most important goal in franchise history.

It was just the second goal of the playoffs for Johansen, who credited defenseman Yannick Weber for pushing him into the play.

"He got me into a position where I could be alone with the goalie," Johansen said of Weber. "To contribute tonight and close the second round was huge."

St. Louis controlled the puck for most of the game's remainder but really didn't generate a lot of quality chances against Rinne. The Blues' best opportunity came with just under 11 minutes left, but Kyle Brodziak's tip try at the goalmouth thumped harmlessly into Rinne's pads.

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Allen, who made three of his 15 saves on breakaways after Johansen's goal, was pulled for a sixth attacker with 2:22 left. However, Calle Jarnkrok's empty-netter at 19:00 not only made him Nashville's 14th goal-scorer of the playoffs, but it also made the Predators the first team to get out of the second round.

For the Blues, it was a bitter end to a season which saw them post the NHL's second-best record since Mike Yeo took over coaching duties after Ken Hitchcock was fired Feb. 1.

"It was right there for us all game long, but a couple of mistakes wound up in the back of the net," Yeo said. "Credit to Nashville because they played well, but it stinks right now. It hurts."

NOTES: St. Louis RW Alexander Steen (foot) returned to the lineup after missing Game 5. He started on a line with LW Dmitrij Jaskin and C Patrik Berglund. ... Nashville RW Craig Smith drew back into the lineup after missing the last six games with an undisclosed injury. ... Other Blues scratches were D Jordan Schmaltz, G Luke Opilka, C Ivan Barbashev, LW Magnus Paajarvi, RW Nail Yakupov and LW Zach Sanford. ... The Predators scratched D Anthony Bitetto, RW PA Parenteau, RW Miikka Salomaki, D Brad Hunt, C Frederick Gaudreau, G Marek Mazanec, LW Pontus Aberg and LW Harry Zolnierczyk.

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