Predators continue to prove they aren’t just along for the ride

James Neal made a big hit and then seconds later scored the winning goal in overtime to help the Nashville Predators defeat the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — We’ve seen wild-card teams before, even before the National Hockey League slapped that football label on its seventh- and eighth-place teams.

There were the eighth-place Los Angeles Kings in 2012, who went up 3-0 in every series they played. Or the No. 8 seed Oilers of ‘06, whose path to the Stanley Cup Final was paved by the top four teams in their conference being eliminated in Round 1.

For a wild-card team to go all the way, the moons have to line up somewhat. There’s always a trend, or some goofy trait they manufacture that makes us believe.

Or more importantly, that helps them to believe.

So along come the Nashville Predators, who walked into Chicago in Round 1, beat the mighty Blackhawks in the series opener, and then swept ’em. Then they rolled into St. Louis, took the opener, and blackened the Blues in six.

On Friday in Anaheim, on his sixth shot on goal of the evening, James Neal buried a power-play one-timer at 9:24 of overtime to give his Predators a 3-2 win. It came off the sweetest P.K. Subban play, where he faked the shot, then set it on a tee for Neal to hammer home.

Game 1 is in the Preds’ pocket. That can’t hurt the ol’ belief system that coaches talk about.

“I don’t think we can believe any more, to be honest with you,” said Filip Forsberg, who scored Nashville’s first goal. “We know what we’re capable of here.”

Nashville was better in Game 1 — flat out, no doubt. They won two of three periods and the overtime, completing their Game 1 mission over a Ducks group that looked like a team that had played an emotional Game 7 not 48 hours before.

They were just dipping their toe into Round 3, to see how competitive it might be.

“We can’t afford to have the start we had today,” said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, asked about what needs fixing for Game 2 on Sunday. “We were receiving the game and our goaltender should get full credit for keeping us in it. We’ll regroup on Sunday.”

Of course, one coach’s poison is another coach’s Pinot.

“I would take that energy every time,” said Preds coach Peter Laviolette. “We could dip our toe in the water, or we could jump off the diving board and cannonball in. Given the choice, I would take that energy and I would take that juice, and I would try to push the pace and push them as much as possible.”

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Some people talk “rest versus rust,” but sometimes it seems more about the distance between a desperate final game of one series, and the more temperate Game 1 of the next one.

Nashville hadn’t played since dusting off St. Louis on Sunday, and the rest days coupled with the feeling that that series was ancient history left them with plenty of hop for their Round 3 opener.

Any pro hockey player is fine with a day’s rest between games. They’re all in fantastic shape, physically. But somehow, after a seven-game series the likes of the one Anaheim had with Edmonton, it is as if the brain and the heart required a little more time to recharge.

“We were lucky to have a couple more days of rest than them,” said a magnanimous Ryan Johansen, who had two assists. “They had a tough series with Edmonton, obviously, seven games. That’ll take a toll on you.

“We’ll keep pounding away and make it as difficult as we can for them.”

The Preds served notice that they’re not just along for some temporary joyride, one of Gary Bettman’s Sunbelt oft-sold, non-traditional markets that’s been around for 18 seasons (19 years) and played its maiden conference final game Friday. They’re quick, they’ve got Pekka Rinne in goal, and a defence so deep that four different Nashville blueliners played 25-plus minutes in Game 1.

“They have good defencemen who can also skate,” Ducks forward Nate Thompson said. “It’s going to be a tough series.”

Especially when you’re trailing after one game, right? Well, remember, the Ducks lost both their home games against Edmonton, and won that series in seven.

“I think our opponents have probably made us work to try to bring out the best of ourselves,” began Laviolette. “You play the Chicago Blackhawks, you know you have to play well. If you don’t, you won’t find success. St. Louis was the best team in the league since Feb. 1, had the most points. If you don’t bring out your best, it’s the same thing.

“And Anaheim, they had three regulation losses in their last 25 games. This is a team that’s played well down the stretch. I think you realize you have to do the right things in order to find success.”

One down, one in the bank, and one more dose of confidence for Nashville.

Something’s happening here. The Preds can feel it.