NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Different players just keep stepping up for the Nashville Predators, and now their magical postseason run has an even bigger destination: the franchise’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Colton Sissons scored his third goal with 6:00 left, and the Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks with a 6-3 win in Game 6 on Monday night in the Western Conference finals.
“In the back of your head, you’ve been thinking about the Finals and then when the buzzer goes off, it’s an amazing feeling,” Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said.
The Predators, who’ve never won even a division title in their 19-year history, came in with the fewest points of any team in these playoffs. They lost their top center, Ryan Johansen, for the playoffs after Game 4 because of emergency surgery on his left thigh. Captain Mike Fisher has missed two games with an upper-body injury.
“We went through a tremendous amount of adversity the last 72 hours losing two key guys in our lineup,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. “I mean, I said it before earlier in the playoffs that this team’s got tremendous amount of composure. There is so much confidence in this dressing room what we can accomplish together if we play the right way.”
They’ve swept the West’s No. 1 seed in Chicago, downed St. Louis in six in the second round and now the Pacific Division champs. Peter Laviolette is the fourth coach to take three different teams to the Final, and the first since the playoffs split into conference play in 1994.
Laviolette joked that probably means he’s been fired a lot.
“Our guys know the big picture,” Laviolette said of his Predators. “They understand what it is that we’re trying to do here. And when that time comes, we’ll be ready.”
The Predators will play either defending champion Pittsburgh or Ottawa for the Stanley Cup. Game 1 is Monday.
Anaheim lost in the conference finals for the second time in three years.
“Our effort was there and we were a desperate hockey club right from the opening faceoff, and we didn’t quit until they scored the second empty-net goal,” Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said.
Cam Fowler tied it 3-3 at 8:52 of the third for Anaheim as the Ducks tried to rally for the fifth time this season when trailing by multiple goals.
But Sissons, who scored on the third shot of the game, scored twice in a wild third period to give the Predators a 3-2 lead at 3:00 and then 4-3 three minutes later.
“I don’t think I even dreamt of this moment, scoring a hat trick in the Western Conference clinching game, but I can’t speak enough for just our whole group,” Sissons said. “We’ve been through some challenges together and we stuck together no matter what, just always believed and here we are.”
Austin Watson scored on Nashville’s first shot and had an empty-netter with 1:34 to go. Filip Forsberg also had an empty-net goal.
Rinne made 38 saves to improve to 12-4.
Ondrej Kase scored his second career goal — both in this series — giving Anaheim a chance to tie the NHL record with a fifth rally when trailing by multiple goals. Chris Wagner banked the puck off Rinne’s head for a goal at 5:00 of the third to keep the Ducks close.
But this has been the best postseason ever for Rinne, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, a stretch ranking among the NHL’s best. And the 6-foot-5 Finn used his big body to turn away shot after shot even with the Ducks trying to crash the net every opportunity.
Music City buzzed all day leading up to the puck drop waiting for one of the biggest sports parties this town has ever seen.
Superstar Garth Brooks spoiled the usual mystery of who would sing the national anthem with Twitter hints hours before the game. Sure enough, his wife Trisha Yearwood became the latest to handle the honors. Former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George waved the rally towel to crank up the fans.
That didn’t even include the throngs packing the plaza outside the arena’s front doors and the park across the street.
The Ducks, who came in 2-1 when facing elimination this postseason, peppered Rinne with pucks.
But they had goalie Jonathan Bernier making his first career playoff start after John Gibson was scratched with a hamstring injury. Caryle said Gibson, who went out after the first period of Game 5, was expected to play before telling them he was unavailable after skating Monday morning. Jhonas Enroth dressed as Bernier’s backup.
Watson’s third this postseason deflected off the left skate of Anaheim defenseman Brandon Montour just 81 seconds into the game. Sissons skated on the top line in place of Johansen. He finished a game-high plus-5.
“This one is going to sting for a while,” Ducks forward Corey Perry said.
NOTES: Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and coached Philadelphia to the Final in 2010. Laviolette joins Scotty Bowman (St. Louis, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit), Dick Irvin (Chicago, Toronto and Montreal) and Mike Keenan (Flyers, Chicago, Rangers) taking at least three teams to the Final. … Sissons’ hat trick was the first in a conference final clincher since Chicago’s Patrick Kane in 2013 against Los Angeles. His hat trick is the second in Nashville playoff history.