NASHVILLE, Tenn. – This will be a day they talk about here for a generation. Maybe longer.
There are kids who came down to Lower Broadway with their parents on Saturday afternoon and got to swing a sledgehammer at an old car painted in Pittsburgh Penguins colours. They stood among the sea of strangers that stretched in all directions from Bridgestone Arena and celebrated a city as unique as the chants that echoed through the building.
Then they watched a rocking hockey game.
Well, more accurately, they cheered through one. During warmups, during a 90-second TV timeout, during every appearance of a catfish on the ice and during every hair-raising goal by their Nashville Predators.
"Yeah, you know what, that’s the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in," defenceman P.K. Subban said after a 5-1 victory in the city’s opening act in the Stanley Cup Final. "It was pretty spectacular. Anybody who paid the price of admission to watch the game, I’m sure it was money well spent for them."
It was the kind of game that served as a reward for the hardcore fans that have lived and died with the Predators from the very beginning. It was a night certain to make hardcore fans out of those that have jumped aboard this runaway train a little more recently.
Take a bow, Nashville.
"It’s just you can feel it," said rookie Frederick Gaudreau, who scored the second goal of his NHL career. "The energy is crazy. You’re in town, somebody recognizes you and they’re just like so proud. It really is a big boost to be playing in this city."
It really hit the players when they came out for warmups and the building was already close to capacity.
There was even a chant for goalie Pekka Rinne, who had been heavily scrutinized by the media after two uneven performances in Pittsburgh. In the stands, the love was unconditional.
"Pretty cool," said Rinne. "I mean, that was unbelievable. Collectively we came to the locker-room, and everybody was kind of telling each other that we’ve never seen anything like that."
"You don’t see that anywhere," added defenceman Ryan Ellis. "Probably in any sport. You don’t see almost a full stadium in warmups."
It didn’t let up even when Nashville went down on an early goal by Jake Guentzel. At that point, they were trailing 2-0 in the series and 1-0 in Game 3, and still the 17,283 gold-plated beauties who dipped deep into their savings accounts to buy tickets screamed throughout an entire commercial break.
Their faith was rewarded during a second period where Roman Josi and Gaudreau scored 42 seconds apart after Nashville had gone more than 72 minutes since last scoring on Matt Murray.
Gaudreau’s goal had Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban jumping and dancing in the stands. The untold thousands gathered around the viewing screens outside, too. This Preds movement brought out a little bit of everything, including Boston Celtics centre Kelly Olynyk, NFL coaches Rex and Rob Ryan and Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
Not long after Nashville went ahead 2-1, Rinne rewarded the faith of head coach Peter Laviolette.
The much-discussed goaltender denied Phil Kessel off the rush and slid across to get a glove and pad on Chris Kunitz’s rebound chance. It was his biggest moment of the series. Subban showered him with enthusiastic expletives.
"He was pumped up," said Rinne. "He tried to block that shot, tried to make a great play. And, you know, I think he was just like: ‘Damn right!"’
Somehow, the stingy Predators kept both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from registering a shot on goal in a playoff game for the first time ever. Pittsburgh’s power play continued its struggles with an 0-for-3 performance.
The party went to another level in the final 20 minutes – after James Neal banged in a rebound late in the second period and Craig Smith scored on a third-period breakaway and Mattias Ekholm sniped the top corner on a power play.
Still, this was a night that seemed somehow bigger than hockey. That’s strange to say, especially since this is the Stanley Cup Final.
But people here have waited a long time for this kind of occasion – 19 years to be exact – and seemingly everyone walking the street knew it. You saw t-shirts with "Hockey Tonk" and "Everyone over Nashville" and all kinds of other slogans.
Now their team has some life in a series Pittsburgh leads 2-1 heading into Game 4 here on Monday.
That will be another opportunity for a civic celebration unlike any these eyes have ever witnessed around an NHL game. The bar has been raised, but don’t bet against this spirited community pushing it even higher still.
"They don’t get enough credit for knowing the game and knowing hockey," said Subban. "They do know the game and they understand the importance of these games. Regardless of what the score is, they’re going to support us and be there for us because we’ve worked so hard to give them something to cheer about.
"I mean if you thought it was loud today I’m sure it’ll be even louder in Game 4."
It wasn’t quite a guarantee, but it seemed like a pretty good bet.