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A question of timing: Off-ice arguments overshadow dynamite series between Predators, Ducks

Nashville Predators goalie Anders Lindback (39), of Sweden, replaces Pekka Rinne (35) in the third period of Game 4 against the Anaheim Ducks in a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. The Ducks won 6-3 to even the series at 2-2. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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Nashville Predators goalie Anders Lindback (39), of Sweden, replaces Pekka Rinne (35) in the third period of Game 4 against the Anaheim Ducks in a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. The Ducks won 6-3 to even the series at 2-2. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Corey Perry would just like to point out that somewhere underneath the allegedly dirty hits, the suspensions and the press-conference posturing, there's quite a memorable playoff series going on between the Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators.

A 2-2 series with clutch goals, wild momentum swings and a nasty edge—which is just the way the Ducks like their hockey.

Anaheim and the Predators will begin the best-of-three finish to their first-round brawl Friday night with Game 5 at Honda Center.

"There's been some big hits, and you've got to fight for every inch on the ice," said Perry, the NHL post-season scoring leader with eight points through four games. "They're a team that likes to play the body, and so do we. It's a great physical series. It's playoff hockey."

Another game led to another suspension Thursday, with Ducks left wing Jarkko Ruutu banned from Game 5 after colliding with Martin Erat during Anaheim's series-evening 6-3 victory in Game 4. Ruutu is a minor contributor to the Ducks, but the Predators lost a much more valuable player: Erat was Nashville's co-scoring leader, but he didn't make the trip to Orange County for Game 5.

The hit led to another round of verbal spin by both coaches. Anaheim's Randy Carlyle called the NHL's criteria for discipline "mind-boggling."

"To me, it's absurd that there's even mention of a hearing when it's a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, and a guy passes the puck," said Carlyle, who wondered why the NHL didn't investigate Jordin Tootoo's cross-check to the head of Anaheim defenceman Toni Lydman in the final minute of Game 4.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz saw a different play—and an additional reason to lament the collision.

"It was a late hit," Trotz said. "To me, the Ducks are the ones whining and complaining that they are the ones being targeted or whatever, but they have had a guy suspended, late hit, we lose a good player. Ruutu didn't even dress (earlier in the series). He's a 5-minute player for them, and we lose a top player."

While both teams lost a player for Game 5, the Ducks are getting a big contributor back.

High-scoring left wing Bobby Ryan sat out the Ducks' last two games in Nashville under suspension for stomping on Jonathon Blum's foot in the waning moments of Game 2. Ryan scored two goals that night, and he's well-rested after two nights of watching Anaheim from a luxury box.

So did the suspension change anything about Ryan, who has never had a reputation for dirty play?

"I don't think it can," said Ryan, a 34-goal scorer in the regular season. "Obviously, I've had nothing like this before, being called a dirty player. I won't change a thing—just be a little more careful not to stomp on anybody's foot. I'm just glad the guys won (Game 4) to take some pressure off the situation."

Ryan is expected to resume his role on Anaheim's top line with Perry and captain Ryan Getzlaf, although Carlyle is still contemplating his lineup after rookie Brandon McMillan excelled on that wing in Nashville. The Ducks went straight from the airport to Honda Center for practice Thursday, although Getzlaf and goalie Ray Emery were among the players who did little or nothing.

The Predators worked out before travelling Thursday, hoping to shake off the shock of a rough finish to Game 4. Nashville twice rallied from deficits to tie it heading to the third period, but Perry's short-handed goal set off a three-goal avalanche and chased Pekka Rinne, reducing the Predators' formidable goalie to a spectator.

"You take this kind of game personally a little bit," Rinne said. "You don't feel good about the game ending like that, but at the same time, you have no other choice. It's the best time of the year, and you just have to respect this situation and bounce back."

The Predators' problems this season have been mostly related to an often-punchless offence, yet they've scored at least three goals in every game of the series. Instead, Nashville's formidable defence has struggled to keep up with the Ducks' star-studded offence, which has scored 14 goals in the past three games.

Nashville is doing its best not to think about last season's playoff experience in the franchise's fifth consecutive first-round series defeat. The Predators had a 2-1 series lead over Stanley Cup champion Chicago, but lost Game 4 in discouraging shutout fashion—and then blew a lead with 13.6 seconds left in an eventual overtime loss in Game 5.

"Now it's time to really show that what kind of group of guys that we are," Rinne said. "It was the same situation last year up in Chicago. I think we can go back and little bit and learn from there."

___

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.

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