Predators fans celebrate outside the arena as Nashville earned it's first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals with a 6-3 victory over Anaheim on Monday night. Photo courtesy Nashville Predators/Twitter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No matter the shot margin, no matter how dire the situation looked for a stretch of the third period, the Nashville Predators were determined to keep their date with history Monday night.
Their veteran goalie and a young forward who was a healthy scratch from some key late-season games pushed them over the Western Conference finish line.
Pekka Rinne's 38 saves and Colton Sissons' first playoff hat trick carried Nashville to a 6-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks at raucous Bridgestone Arena, giving the Predators a 4-2 series win and their first Stanley Cup finals berth.
The Predators will meet the Eastern Conference champion -- either the Ottawa Senators or Pittsburgh Penguins -- in Game 1 of the Cup finals on May 29 on the road. The Penguins own a 3-2 advantage in the Eastern finals and can clinch their series Tuesday night in Ottawa.
With the score 3-3 and the Predators being outshot 39-15 at the time, Nashville regained the lead with a stunning one-timer from Sissons at 14:00 of the third period, three seconds after killing Roman Josi's minor for delay of game. Calle Jarnkrok's saucer pass teed up Sissons in the left circle, and Sissons beat Jonathan Bernier for his third goal of the night and fifth of the postseason.
"We let them back in the game in the third, but thank God we have Colton Sissons," Rinne said.
Sissons scored three of his eight regular-season goals in a 6-1 win Jan. 5 at Tampa Bay. He became the Predators' first-line center before Game 5 against Anaheim after Ryan Johansen was ruled out of the playoffs following emergency surgery on his thigh.
Coach Peter Laviolette picked the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Sissons to center Filip Forsberg and Pontus Aberg because he wanted someone who could match up physically with Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf.
Over the last two games, Sissons was a plus-7 and collected four points, none more important than the goal which for now is the biggest in franchise history.
"There was a turnover and I got lost on the back side," he said of his tiebreaking goal. "Calle made a beautiful pass, and fortunately I put it away."
The Ducks pulled Bernier at the last TV timeout with 2:38 left, but Forsberg fired in an empty-netter from the Nashville defensive zone 16 seconds later for his eighth playoff goal. Austin Watson followed suit at 18:26 for his second goal of the night and fourth of the postseason.
The final 94 seconds was a celebration for the sellout crowd, some of whom could be seen crying after Forsberg's marker. Towels, hats and catfish littered the ice as the game crawled to its conclusion and the building shook in delight as the final horn sounded.
It is the third different team Laviolette will take to the Cup finals. He won the title with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and lost with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010.
"It probably means I got fired a lot," Laviolette joked about his accomplishment.
Anaheim outshot Nashville 41-18, controlling play for most of the last 50 minutes. The Ducks erased a 3-1 deficit after Sissons' second goal off a rebound at 3:00 of the third period, tying the game on Chris Wagner's second marker in as many games at 5:00 and Cam Fowler's point blast at 8:52.
At that point, and particularly when Josi went off to serve his minor, it seemed like a matter of time before the Ducks grabbed the lead for good. Instead, the Predators displayed their resilience one more time, this time putting Anaheim away.
"This is the worst feeling in hockey," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "We worked so hard all year -- and in the game -- and it is incredibly frustrating."
Bernier, making his first playoff start because John Gibson (lower-body injury) couldn't go, gave up goals on two of the first three shots. Watson's wrister deflected off the stick of Anaheim center Ryan Kesler at 1:21, and Sissons wired home a wrister at 8:47 from the high slot.
The Ducks got within 2-1 on Ondrej Kase's point-blank wrister from Getzlaf at 4:45 of the second period. They kept owning possession and pumping shots at Rinne.
But Rinne never cracked, and the league's lowest playoff seed -- Nashville's 94 points were the fewest of all 16 postseason participants -- completed its improbable run to franchise history.
"Our guys know the big picture, what we are trying to do here," Laviolette said. "But tonight, they are going to enjoy it."
NOTES: Anaheim RWs Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves (lower-body injuries) didn't make the trip east for Game 6. Rakell had seven goals in 15 playoff matches. ... Nashville captain Mike Fisher and RW Craig Smith also missed Game 6 with an undisclosed injuries. Smith skated in warmups but hasn't played since Game 6 of the St. Louis series ... The Ducks' other notable scratches were D Korbinian Holzer, D Clayton Stoner and D Shea Theodore. ... Other Predators scratches included RW PA Parenteau and LW Harry Zolnierczyk.