ANAHEIM, California – The Nashville Predators already face a daunting challenge when they attempt to take control of the Western Conference finals in a pivotal Game 5 on the road.
Without Ryan Johansen, that task is immeasurably tougher.
The star Nashville center will miss the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs after emergency surgery on a left thigh injury, abruptly leaving the Predators without their leading scorer when they visit the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night.
The Predators announced the injury Friday after the rest of the club traveled to Anaheim. Johansen was hurt at an unspecified point in the Ducks’ 3-2 overtime victory Thursday in Game 4, which evened a tense, physical series .
Johansen leads the Predators with 13 points in 14 playoff games while centering their top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. The smooth center has played a major role in Nashville’s transformation into a serious Stanley Cup contender ever since his arrival in a high-profile trade with Columbus in January 2016.
Just two wins away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the Predators now must figure out how to beat a playoff-tested opponent with no help from their top playmaker — and perhaps without captain Mike Fisher, another possibly injured center.
Although the Predators didn’t say how Johansen got hurt, he skated slowly to the Predators’ bench late in Game 4 after absorbing a hard check on the boards from Anaheim defenseman Josh Manson. He didn’t need to go to the Nashville dressing room at the time, but Johansen had surgery late Thursday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Before the Predators traveled, they acknowledged an understanding of exactly what they’re facing over the next six days, along with a confidence from past playoff success in Anaheim. Nashville already won Game 1 of this series at Honda Center after winning three times in Anaheim during the first round last spring.
“That’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports,” said forward James Neal, who scored Nashville’s overtime winner in Game 1. “And we should be confident in our group. We have a chance to go in their rink, win a game, and come back with a chance to win in our home building. So put a smile on our face, enjoy it, get ready, and feel good about a tough game in their rink and what can come from that.”
Johansen had one goal and three assists in four games against the Ducks, who deployed their shutdown defensive line centered by Ryan Kesler against Nashville’s top line. Johansen reacted angrily to Kesler’s defensive persistence after Game 2, complaining about the Selke Trophy candidate’s physical play.
The problems of Johansen’s absence are compounded by the fact that the Predators also could be without Fisher. The veteran was injured during the third period of Game 4 when Manson accidentally hit him in the head with a knee while leaping to reach a puck.
Nothing appeared illegal about Manson’s contact with either Nashville center, but the Predators have been frustrated by Anaheim’s hard-nosed approach to hockey. Goalie Pekka Rinne protested about Anaheim’s play around his net after Game 4, echoing a fairly common refrain from opponents in recent years struggling to match the physical game played by the Ducks, who don’t take the laid-back approach suggested by their Southern California home.
“To have any success against (Rinne), you’re going to have to make life difficult,” Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler said. “He’s playing at a very high level right now, and so you have to make things uncomfortable for him while doing everything within the rules of hockey. Whether that’s traffic in front, or stopping right in front of him when he makes a save, we try and play hard, but we try and play fair, too.”
To address their sudden depth problems down the middle, the Predators could promote center Calle Jarnkrok to their top line while moving Colin Wilson from wing to center. They also could activate 37-year-old center Vernon Fiddler, who played in the first two games of the conference finals before sitting out the last two.
Johansen will need at least two months to recover, ending his season at a crucial moment in the longest playoff run in Predators history. He is the second key Nashville player to incur a season-ending injury in the playoffs after young Swiss forward Kevin Fiala broke his leg in the opening game of the Predators’ second-round series against St. Louis last month.
After posting two multipoint games in Anaheim to open the series, Johansen went scoreless in the Predators’ two home games against the Ducks. He was still a major threat against all of the Predators’ playoff opponents, providing his two wings with strong playmaking on one of the NHL’s most exciting young lines.