ANAHEIM, Calif. — Pontus Aberg spent most of the season in the minors, and he had a part-time depth role for the Nashville Predators in these Stanley Cup playoffs until injuries thrust him into a key role in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
And now the unassuming Swede has another new role for Nashville: He’s the hero of the latest clutch victory in the Predators’ increasingly irresistible Stanley Cup push.
Aberg scored his first career playoff goal with 8:59 to play, and the Predators moved to the brink of their first Stanley Cup Final with a 3-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks to take a 3-2 series lead Saturday night.
Aberg had to send himself flying across the crease to swat home a rebound of Filip Forsberg’s shot for the Predators, epitomizing Nashville’s persistent effort through a defensive victory.
A moment before he scored the biggest goal of his life, Aberg was upended during a scramble. He had to be taken off the ice for medical evaluation immediately after his celebration, but his teammates hung on to move one win away from playing for hockey’s ultimate prize.
“I face-planted there and lost my tooth, but it didn’t hurt my head,” Aberg said with a smile.
Not much seems to wound these resilient Predators, who overcame the injury absence of top scorer Ryan Johansen and captain Mike Fisher. Nashville leaned heavily on stalwart goalie Pekka Rinne and got barely enough offense to survive, with Colin Wilson scoring the tying goal late in the second period and Austin Watson adding an empty-netter.
“We knew coming into tonight that we’ve just got to come together, play well defensively and grind it out,” Rinne said. “I thought that’s what we did. We showed a lot of character. For us, the first couple of rounds was fairly smooth sailing. Things were going our way. You deal with adversity, but right now, it’s something that every team is going to face, and I feel like we handled it really well.”
Game 6 is Monday night in Nashville.
Aberg, who also has one career NHL regular-season goal, was only in position to win it because the Predators were on a counterattack after a prolonged scramble in front of Nashville’s net. Rinne, who made 32 saves, ended that frantic sequence prone in the starfish pose, frustrating the Ducks for the umpteenth time and earning his fifth victory in Nashville’s seven playoff games at Honda Center over the past two seasons.
Chris Wagner scored the only goal on a frustrating day for the Ducks, who began the game without injured 30-goal scorers Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves before losing starting goalie John Gibson to a lower-body injury during the first intermission.
Anaheim’s collection of veteran stars and up-and-coming talent will have to win back-to-back elimination games to avoid crashing out in the conference finals for the second time in three years.
“I thought we had energy coming out, and it deteriorated throughout the game,” captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “We’ve got to do a better job maintaining what we want to do with our game plan, because they played hard tonight.”
Jonathan Bernier took over for Gibson and stopped 16 shots in his first appearance in nearly two weeks for the Ducks, calling it a “weird situation.” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said Gibson wants to play in Game 6, but will be re-evaluated.
“We have a lot of areas of concern off our performance tonight,” Carlyle said. “We’re not going to hang our head with doom and gloom. We’ll get ourselves ready. We’ll re-energize our group, and we’ll look forward to playing a better game. We’ve won in that building before, so it doesn’t really matter where we go.”
The Predators still haven’t lost back-to-back games at any point in what’s looking like a charmed playoff run for an 18-season-old franchise that’s finally one game from playing for the Stanley Cup.
Aberg and several other role players all came up big in the Predators’ first game of the season without Johansen, their top-line center and leading postseason scorer. Johansen had emergency surgery shortly after Game 4 and was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs.
Fisher missed his first game of his scoreless postseason with an undisclosed injury after taking a hit to the head in Game 4.
The Ducks also were hurting without Rakell, a surprise omission due to a lower-body injury, and Eaves, who missed his ninth straight game. The duo combined for 65 regular-season goals.
NOTES: C Frederick Gaudreau made his Stanley Cup playoff debut for Nashville, and veteran C Vern Fiddler returned from a two-game absence. F Miikka Salomaki also returned from five games off. … F Nic Kerdiles made his third appearance of the postseason for Anaheim in Rakell’s absence. … Nashville ended Anaheim’s streak of seven consecutive Game 5 victories at home since 2011. The last team to beat the Ducks in a Game 5 at Honda Center also was the Preds.