NASHVILLE — “Wha-choo gonna have, honey?”
The woman in the Union St. sandwich shop reminds us every time that Nashville has loaned the National Hockey League an entirely unique brand of Southern hospitality. It’s about as far from Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal, or Sarge’s Deli in New York City, as hockey people could possibly find themselves.
It’s kind of Dallas-like down here in Tennessee, but to a Kenny Chesney soundtrack. With a shot of Jack.
Well, guess what, y’all? The Preds are fixin’ to win it all, two-stepping all the way to their first Stanley Cup in 20 years with a 6-3, series-clinching win over the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night.
“It’s a dream come true,” said the big Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne, who came here as an eighth-round pick and has become this club’s longest standing member and de facto captain. “But it’s a funny thing, though. When everything is happening around us, you still feel hungry, and now we have a chance to play for the Cup.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling. And you’ve been working for that for a long, long time.”
That a kid from North Vancouver who could walk through the Roxy unnoticed would become this club’s biggest playoff hero is fitting. In his first full NHL season after three in Milwaukee, Colton Sissons had a hat trick in Game 6, pushing his lifetime total of NHL playoff goals from two to five.
Nashville grows its own better than a B.C. hippy, with a lineup full of Milwaukee grads like Sissons. They arrive unheralded but ready to contribute, like Game 5 hero Pontus Aberg, or sudden 31-goal man Viktor Arvidsson, the son of a Swedish potato farmer. Or defenceman Mattias Ekholm, who can really, really play.
“It feels good, man. I’m not going to lie,” said Sissons. “I don’t think I even dreamt of this moment, scoring a hat trick in a Western Conference-clinching game.”
Funny, ‘cause Smashville has been dreaming of this moment for 19 seasons over two decades, mired in a Central Division with the impossibly good Detroit Red Wings for the first decade, and thwarted annually by the three-time Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks after that.
This is the first season folks here have got a chance to swing that sledge hammer at the wreck outside Bridgestone into Round 3. This weekend they’ll find a new jalopy, paint it in the colours of either Ottawa or Pittsburgh, and they’ll swing hammer right into June.
“It’s going to be bumpin’. Real excitin’, man,” said Colin Wilson, a seventh overall draft pick 10 seasons ago who has never known another organization outside GM David Poile’s. “We’ve seen this city grow… It turned into a hockey town. We made some timely trades, some timely picks. It just came together as an organization, something the whole city could get behind.”
Here in Nashville, when public address announcer Paul McCann says, “One minute remaining in the period!” 17,352 fans yell in perfect unison: “Thanks Paul!”
They have more chants here, all executed perfectly on cue, than the rest of the NHL combined. And you could punt a football from Bridgestone Arena, kitty-corner across Broadway to Legend’s Corner, the first bar on a Honky Tonk strip that’s made Smashville the best road trip in the league, bar none.
Anaheim got the road trip, but alas, went home with only the hangover.
By the end of Round 3 they were without 30-goal men Rickard Rackell and Patrick Eaves. Then the death blow: the hamstring that goalie John Gibson pulled in Game 5 kept him out of Game 6 completely.
Jonathan Bernier took the start, but simply never gave his team a save. The Preds scored on two of their first three shots, put four of 16 pucks past Bernier on the night, and deposited two empty-netters the way a hockey writer feeds the tip pail at Tootsie’s.
Anaheim owned this game and lost, outshooting Nashville 41-18. The Ducks showed remarkable resilience in a game they chased from the 1:21 mark, when Nashville’s first shot eluded Bernier. The Ducks deserved better, with official Corsi numbers that read: Whole bunch to barely any.
“I like to think in the playoffs, when you play better than the other team you usually end up winning,” said Ducks feisty winger Andrew Cogliano. “I don’t think (the puck) was even in our end, for any part of the game. That’s how it goes. The game’s over. Your season’s over.”
This victory will burn the folks in Montreal, who will now watch fan favourite P.K. Subban reach his first Stanley Cup Final. Instead of the historic Habs, however, he’ll rush the puck for the petulant Preds.
Said Subban: “I’ve never been on a team that works as hard for each other as these guys do.”