The Nashville Predators needed somebody to be the hero if they were going to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history Monday night. In a series heavily impacted by injuries, Ryan Johansen’s felt like an opportunity opening up for the Anaheim Ducks to get back into a series they trailed 3-2.
Now the Predators have their first Western Conference title ever, and they have their new hero, too. Colton Sissons, a 23-year-old forward with 13 NHL goals to his name entering the playoffs, recorded a hat trick in the Predators’ 6-3 win to eliminate the Ducks in Game 6.
In a run of incredible performances by unexpected names ranging from Kevin Fiala to Pontus Aberg during this postseason, Sissons’ was the latest and arguably the most important. The Predators almost let Game 6 get away from them after blowing a 3-1 lead, but just as he had twice before, it was Sissons who scored once more time to save the day before a pair of empty-netters put the game away.
This is a performance the Predators badly needed. Without Johansen, a big, dishing dynamo who averaged nearly a point-per-game this postseason, they’re not nearly as strong up the middle. Add the absence of Mike Fisher, who was the team’s No. 2 center for long stretches this season, and Sissons was being pressed into a role he’s basically never played before, let alone in the heat of a playoff elimination game.
That’s the kind of pressure under which many young players might wither and fall apart, but Sissons came through with his first career hat trick at the most opportune time. For someone who had 13 goals and seven assists in 109 career NHL regular season games entering Monday, it’s even more incredible.
Sissons had back-to-back 25-goal seasons in the AHL in 2013-14 and 2014-15, so it’s not like he’s never shown scoring ability before. But to have a game like this, in this moment, is something that’ll likely stand out the rest of his career.
The Predators may not have a true No. 1 center anymore without Johansen, but they have a deep group of talented players that have fully bought into coach Peter Laviolette’s system. And from the big names like Johansen, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Filip Forsberg and Pekka Rinne through the role players like Sissons, Aberg, and Calle Jarnkrok, they’ve found a mix that’s stood the test of three good teams in the Blackhawks, Blues, and Ducks.
Now the Predators await the Penguins or Senators in the next round, and it’s fair to say that matchup could be tough. If Nashville has to size up against Pittsburgh’s one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without its usual top two centers, that could be the kryptonite that ends the run.
But the Predators have gotten this far not just because of stars like Johansen, but because of unexpected bursts of greatness like we saw from Sissons in Game 6. He may not be able to keep it up, but if Nashville can get just a few more of those, it’ll be hoisting its first Stanley Cup soon.