NASHVILLE — Every once in a while, the right team lands in the right town, playing the right game in front of the right people. And the result is magical — even for a jaded old hockey writer and a bunch of “never too high, never too low” hockey players.
Here in Smashville, one of those Gary Bettman landing spots where we questioned how the Predators would steal enough fans from NASCAR and college football, that mix has come together perfectly this spring.
The Predators aren’t wine, cheese and a string quartet, man. They play the game like the guy over at Tootsie’s bends his six strings — you can hear ‘em coming, and after a night at Bridgestone your head hurts the next morning.
“Preds Hockey” means they’ll trade paint with anyone, and fly around the ice at Bridgestone like the Tennessee defence. And they fight — even in the playoffs — which folks here approve of even more than we do up in Canada.
In return for this Tennessee hockey, their people cheer. And stand. And drink. And have more chants, with 17,000 folks in perfect unison, than the other 29 NHL rinks put together.
Here in Nashville, they’ve have learned just enough about the game to cheer for almost anything, but they also know when the refs are screwing ‘em. Then they litter the ice, just like the old days at the Maple Leaf Gardens or the Stampede Corral in Calgary.
“What a city. What an atmosphere. What a rink,” said Nashville’s James Neal, after a 2-1 win where his team might have been turned away had the crowd not pushed them to keep overcoming the bad breaks.
“They’re special fans, they really are,” said Neal. “And I know everyone says that around the league. Obviously you’re going to say that your fans are the best in the league. But I’ve played in other places, and I’ve played in the playoffs. The atmosphere here is the best I’ve ever been a part of.”
“We kept hounding them,” Forsberg later said. “If I didn’t get this goal, I’m sure someone else would have.”
What happened next? Nashville kept coming, despite having two goals called back for goaltender interference in an eight-second span. Now, we’ve all seen plenty of goals go for naught in this era of goalie interference, sure.
But twice in eight seconds?
“I’ve never seen that,” said Mike Fisher.
It didn’t matter. Nashville kept coming.
“It’s belief,” said Fisher. “Over the course of the season you … build the belief in the group. You just believe it’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, a sold out house that watched Keith Urban put the star in the Star Spangled Banner, was ceaseless. They’ve waited 20 years and 19 seasons for a Conference Championship to be played out here, and they weren’t going to let this night end in a loss.
They booed the refs after losing those two goals – sure, who wouldn’t?
But like their team, they moved on when the puck was dropped, and eventually the inevitable payback arrived in the form of fourth-line Ducks winger Chris Wagner, who took an offensive zone high-sticking penalty with 3:55 to play.
In the tarot cards that are the meting out of playoff breaks in the National Hockey League, the combination of Wagner’s place in the lineup, the spot on the ice that the infraction occurred, and the needless nature of the minor penalty conspired to all but ensure that a goal would ensue.
So when the shot from the point came, and Roman Josi slipped in from the right point to greet the loose biscuit — they love biscuits here in the South — the open net that faced him was a result of an entire night’s work by 20 hockey players, 17,338 fans, and Urban and wife Nicole Kidman, who couldn’t possibly have not stayed for Game 3.
It’s a team that never quits, and a fan base that wouldn’t let them if they tried.
“I can’t. I really can’t … put it into words,” Josi said of the hockey faithful here in Tennessee. “You can watch it on TV, but you’ve got to be in here to feel the energy. It’s unbelievable.
“Every time they stand up, keep cheering, keep cheering… I haven’t been in a building with that much energy in my career. You’ve got to [come] here to see how it really is.”
They’re up 2-1 on Anaheim in this Conference Final, and the Preds look formidable.
Said Ryan Ellis: “Probably one of our most complete games of the playoffs.”
Between the Preds and their people, we’ll give Ellis that much. It’s not going to go any better than this on a Wednesday night in Smashville.