Throughout the Nashville Predators’ recently completed playoff run, ESPN 102.5 The Game had the pleasure of being around the team and covering every game, home and away, as they made their first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Every day this week, I will share our experiences game-by-game, round-by-round over the historic two months of playoff hockey in Smashville.
You could hear a pin drop. It was 4:55 pm – a little over two hours until puck drop – and the Predators’ team bus was dead quiet as it entered United Center. Blackhawks fans lined the fence on street level as the bus descended into the arena. I looked behind me for a brief moment and could see Craig Smith smiling, with the look of someone who was giddy to get the playoffs underway.
It was officially Stanley Cup Playoff time in Smashville.
The Predators entered the first round as heavy underdogs on a national scale. None of ESPN.com’s experts had picked them to pull an upset of top-seeded Chicago, despite the two teams being much closer on paper than everyone wanted you to believe.
What made this Predators team special is how they didn’t really care who they played. Forget the banners and all-stars, the glitz and glamour. For the Preds, Chicago was just a team in their way.
Earlier in the day of Game 1, Darren McFarland asked me, “Do they seem tight to you?” after media availability for morning skate. We didn’t know what to expect. This Preds team was the most talented edition in franchise history. However, they only lived up to the lofty preseason expectations in spurts during the regular season.
As it turned out, the locker room was laser-focused that morning, portraying a team on a mission. And it showed later that night, as Pekka Rinne made 29 saves en route to his first career road playoff shutout. He was simply awesome – one of the best games he’s played in a Predators uniform.
Viktor Arvidsson’s first-period goal stood as the game-winner in a 1-0 victory. In doing so, the Preds stunned United Center, the Blackhawks and the league itself – basically everybody but themselves.
The national anthem in United Center was loud on this night. And I mean loud. Different from Game 1, this contest fell on a Saturday night with NBC in the house. Down 1-0 in the series, Blackhawks fans felt a sense of desperation to help send their team to Nashville tied at one game apiece.
The Blackhawks matched that urgency on the ice early on in Game 2. Richard Panik hit the goalpost 45 seconds in; Marian Hossa had a golden opportunity. Similar to Game 1, Rinne stood tall in net as the Hawks swarmed early.
Going into Game 2, there was an expectation from Chicago media that the ‘Hawks would respond from a loss. There was “no way” the Predators could go up 2-0 against the “high and mighty Blackhawks” … right?
Those assumptions quickly dissipated once Ryan Ellis found the back of the net 3:44 into the first period, quieting a boisterous crowd. The Preds continued to frustrate the ‘Hawks and took a 1-0 lead into intermission.
But Chicago had this in the bag, right? They just had get one goal and they’ll take over the series … right? Wrong.
Early in the second period, a defining moment of the Preds’ playoff run was provided by none other than Harry Zolnierczyk. It wasn’t just the fact that he scored a breakaway goal to put the Preds up 2-0 in Game 2 in United Center. It was the realization, in that moment, that something just seemed different about this Predators team.
McFarland and I hit each other in the arm at the same time once the goal was scored, as if it was a “Did you just see what I saw?” moment. We quickly observed 21,000 fans in front of us grow more and more restless as the minutes ticked away.
From that point forward, the Preds poured it on. Colton Sissons made it 3-0. Ryan Johansen converted a power-play opportunity to make it 4-0, causing a mass exodus and a chorus of boos among the Windy City faithful. Kevin Fiala polished off a 5-0 win with his first playoff goal.
As the fans were elated back home in Nashville, the business-like approach the Preds showed throughout the postseason was evident after the game. When Johansen was asked about going up 2-0 in the series, it was clear he and the rest of the team were not satisfied.
“We let off the gas against Anaheim when we came back and thought it might be easier,” he said of going up 2-0 on the road in the first round last spring. “We’ll learn from that and gear up for Game 3.”
McFarland and I took an Uber ride from the arena to the hotel after the postgame show. We couldn’t believe what we just witnessed – two playoff wins in Chicago in which we didn’t hear Chelsea Dagger one time.
We said repeatedly, “The Predators are up 2-0 on the f****** Blackhawks.”
We didn’t know what to expect when the team flew home from Chicago. It was lunchtime on Easter Sunday in the Bible Belt. One would assume people would’ve had better things to do than show up at an airport to cheer on hockey players walking to their cars.
When we stepped off the plane, you could hear the cheers. As we grabbed our bags on the runway, a “Let’s Go Predators” chant emerged from the small private flight corridor at the airport.
As the Preds conducted a brief media availability, head coach Peter Laviolette gazed in amazement of the crowd that was awaiting them outside the double-doors. At least a couple hundred people showed up on a holiday to welcome the team home.
Game 3 in Nashville was an 8:30 pm local start. That Monday felt like an eternity, as the city was anxious to host its first game of the postseason with their team leading 2-0 in a series they weren’t supposed to win. Many people filled the arena plaza hours before puck drop.
It was one of the most intense atmospheres in Bridgestone Arena history, to date. The pregame show had a new, different feel from ones in the past. It was a deafening crowd from the onset, especially when Rinne made a lunging stick save to keep a bad bounce from ending up in the net.
The Blackhawks showed their mettle in the second period, scoring two goals. Nerves filled the arena as the third period began, with the Preds down 2-0 on the scoreboard. Was all the good fortune of Games 1 and 2 going to run out in Game 3?
One overlooked moment of the playoff run came early in the third. Blackhawks forward Nick Schmaltz got a breakaway opportunity, but was stoned by the glove of Rinne. That save kept the score from becoming 3-0 in favor of Chicago, which likely would’ve been insurmountable. Who knows how the series goes if that puck goes in?
Instead, Filip Forsberg scored a pair of gritty goals to tie the game at 2-2 before regulation ended. Both goals were briefly reviewed by the officials, causing flashbacks to Game 4 of Round 2 in 2012 when Patric Hornqvist’s potential game-tying goal was disallowed due to goalie interference. This time, though, both goals stood.
The good fortune hadn’t run out.
The game went to overtime, where Kevin Fiala provided another Golden Moment. Fiala took a feed from James Neal, outwaited Corey Crawford and shoveled the puck past the goal line. Smashville was pure pandemonium. Elation. Mayhem. Whatever word you want to use applied to the scene in and around Bridgestone Arena at 12:10 am. Strangers were high-fiving one another on the concourse, buying drinks for each other at local establishments on Broadway. The city was officially abuzz.
For the first time in franchise history, the Preds possessed a 3-0 series lead. And it was against hated Chicago.
Have you ever attended a party at a frat house in college? That’s what the third period of Game 4 felt like in Smashville. With the Preds leading 1-0 entering the final 20 minutes, the building was anxiously anticipating a knockout blow to finish off the sweep.
Colton Sissons and Roman Josi delivered, scoring goals 1:29 apart to give the Preds a 3-0 lead. It was happening. History was unfolding in front of our eyes: The Preds were going to win Game 4 and sweep the Central Division winners. Even Preds fans couldn’t have dreamed of sweeping Chicago. But it happened.
Viktor Arvidsson sealed the deal with an empty-net goal. Final: 4-1. Series: Over.
In the locker room after the game, even members of the media shook the hand of Rinne, who had just completed one of the most remarkable playoff series ever for a goaltender. He allowed three goals in the four games, posting a 0.70 goals-against average and .976 save percentage.
The Preds held Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to one point each in the series. Rinne, as goalie, had as many points (two assists) as the Blackhawks’ pair of superstars.
It was one of the most memorable nights I’ve experienced in Preds history. Josi’s second-period goal came just seconds following a raucous TV timeout standing ovation. Strangers once again high-fived one another. The celebratory cheers on the concourse and in Barrel House were deafening. Fans called in to Predators Playoff Tonight until 12:30 in the morning.
Of all the great moments in #Preds history, this one has to be up there…
The “SWEEP” chant. pic.twitter.com/6VizRQ7apM
— 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) April 21, 2017
Smashville is going ape tonight!! pic.twitter.com/W4sCyAdHqh
— 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) April 21, 2017
The Preds hadn’t completed a sweep of just an ordinary team. They swept the freaking Blackhawks – a Preds nemesis for years, both on and off the ice. They took Chicago’s style of game and shoved it down their throat en route to frustrating them to no end.
Kane had said before Game 4 that “all the pressure” was on the Preds. As he said those words, he had the look of defeat on his face. They didn’t know what to do to solve the Preds and get back in the series. That showed in their 4-1 loss, watching their season evaporate quicker than puddles of rain on a warm summer day.
A sweep of Chicago was quite the opening statement to this playoff run. It was a statement to the NHL this wasn’t your ordinary wild card team. It was a statement to Chicago they are no longer the big brother. It was a statement to the citizens of Smashville this team was unlike any of the previous 17.
Coming tomorrow … Witnessing History: Round 2 vs. St. Louis