ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Nick Ritchie is an NHL playoff newcomer. The 21-year-old power forward wasn’t around for any of the Anaheim Ducks’ agonizing Game 7 defeats over the past four seasons.
So when he found a patch of open ice during the third period Wednesday night, Ritchie could let fly with a beautiful shot, his wrists unencumbered by the weight of history.
After four years of agony and over a decade of fruitless Game 7s, the Ducks are finally the victors of a winner-take-all game — and now they’re halfway to another Stanley Cup.
Ritchie scored the tiebreaker, John Gibson made 23 saves and the Ducks ended their streak of five straight Game 7 losses with a 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, advancing to the Western Conference final for the second time in three years.
Andrew Cogliano scored the tying goal midway through the second period for the Ducks, who had blown a 3-2 series lead and lost a Game 7 on home ice in four consecutive seasons.
The Ducks fell behind the Oilers just 3:31 into this seventh game, but the rest of the night largely belonged to Anaheim, which finally showed some veteran mettle in the playoffs’ biggest crucible.
“We were down 1-0 for a little bit, and we didn’t panic,” Ritchie said. “We actually started to play better once they scored, and we got another one and then we kind of brought it home with good defensive hockey.”
Ritchie beat Cam Talbot 3:21 into the third period, his second career playoff goal putting the Ducks ahead in a Game 7 for the first time in five years — and ahead of the Oilers for the first time in nearly 193 minutes since late in Game 4.
The Ducks ended their ignominious streak after the tense final minutes of a strong defensive performance to back Gibson’s best game of the postseason.
Anaheim will host the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the conference finals Friday night.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a relief, but the fact we don’t have to talk about it anymore, that’s a good thing,” captain Ryan Getzlaf said.
Getzlaf ended a monster series without a point on his 32nd birthday, but he contributed to a stellar defensive effort against NHL scoring champion Connor McDavid, who went scoreless in Game 7 and managed just five points in the series.
“It’s going to take some time to get over it,” said McDavid, the 20-year-old captain. “But I think there are a lot of positives we can take from this year. We won’t have to answer that experience question anymore, which is nice. Come next season, we’ll find ourselves in a similar spot and be able to look back on this and feel that disappointment and know what that’s like.”
Drake Caggiula got credit for Edmonton’s goal, and Talbot made 28 saves. Edmonton’s first playoff run since 2006 ended with four losses in five games, but the Oilers’ young talent seems certain to make them a major factor in the West for years.
The time is now for the five-time Pacific Division champion Ducks on the 10-year anniversary of their 2007 championship.
They showed grit and guile while bouncing back from a blowout loss in Game 6 and yet another early deficit in a seventh game, silencing the echoes of past winner-take-all events. Anaheim hadn’t won a Game 7 since 2006, when they were still the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
“I’m happy, because I don’t think we deserved to end our season tonight,” Cogliano said. “It’s a phenomenal feeling.”
Edmonton took an early lead when young Anaheim defenseman Shea Theodore curiously tried to carry the puck out from behind the Ducks’ net and right in front of Gibson. Caggiula skated up and challenged Theodore, who appeared to whip the puck accidentally backward and past Gibson.
The now-familiar hush of fear fell over Honda Center, and it grew when Anaheim took a penalty late in the first. But the Ducks killed the power play spanning the intermission and then gradually increased their push.
Cogliano finally cashed in for the Ducks when he slipped in front of Talbot and hacked home his first goal of the postseason. Cogliano ended a personal 13-game playoff goal drought for the speedy ex-Oilers forward who hasn’t missed a game in his entire 10-year NHL career.
NOTES: D Oscar Klefbom returned to Edmonton’s lineup after missing Game 6 with an upper-body injury. … Anaheim was without two key injured veterans. D Kevin Bieksa missed his sixth straight game, while F Patrick Eaves missed his fourth straight game with a leg injury. The late-season acquisition has played in a Game 7 seven times in his career, most among the Ducks. … Mike Trout and Garrett Richards crossed Katella Avenue from Angel Stadium to watch the game.