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. Yesterday was Chicago; today is St. Louis…
The atmosphere for playoff games in Smashville is one of a kind. Some people relate it to an SEC football contest on Saturdays in the fall; some say it’s an extension of the party that’s always taking place on Broadway. Whatever the case is, every game at Bridgestone Arena in the postseason is a spectacle.
And when you experience a game at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, it becomes apparent of just how spoiled we are by Smashville. Don’t get me wrong: St. Louis is a nice sports town with passionate fans. But when your in-arena pregame show is capped off by a very slow “When the Blues come marching in” – in the style of “When the Saints Go Marching in” – it doesn’t exactly portray a Stanley Cup Playoff game is about to take place on that very ice.
Even though it was announced as a sellout, rows of seats went unclaimed in the upper deck for Game 1. It’s a shame – those people missed a good game.
It didn’t take long for the first-ever playoff meeting between the Preds and Blues to get chippy. With the Preds leading 1-0 early in the second period, the physicality took a turn for the worse when Kevin Fiala took a spill into the end boards. Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo didn’t help matters on the play and even took a cheap shot at Fiala, who was clearly in pain right away.
You could tell instantly that Fiala’s injury was something severe as doctors tended to him. Within minutes, he was stretchered off the ice to a standing ovation from Blues fans.
The next day it was revealed Fiala suffered a broken femur. His season was over, which was unfortunate considering he was just hitting his stride as an impact secondary scoring option for the Preds.
As they did all postseason, the team rallied. Following a 17-minute delay waiting for another ambulance to arrive to Scottrade Center, P.K. Subban wasted no time (36 seconds to be exact) to give the Preds a 2-0 lead. It was the second of three points he racked up in Game 1, becoming the first defenseman in franchise history to pull that off in a playoff game.
Trailing 3-1 entering the third period, the Blues stormed back to tie the game at 3-3. The arena was deafening and the Blues were buzzing around Pekka Rinne. The air was quickly taken out of the arena when another unexpected hero rose to the occasion for the Preds.
In the middle of a line change, the puck was deflected into the offensive zone by Austin Watson. As Jake Allen attempted to make a play outside his crease, Vern Fiddler swooped in and stunned everyone in attendance by poking the game-winner into the net with 5:05 left in the game. The 37-year-old Fiddler celebrated by running on ice.
The Preds overcame a big dose of adversity. They had seen Fiala suffer a traumatic injury, but recovered to win 4-3 to extend their playoff record to 5-0.
I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to watching sports, especially hockey. I tend to notice a lot of little things throughout broadcasts. One thing I’ve always enjoyed seeing are the shots of players getting off a bus to walk into a stadium or arena, with headphones on and coffee in hand. It never changes, but it sets the stage.
So I must say, it was a cool moment walking into the bowels of Scottrade Center three hours ahead of Game 2. Once we advanced past the security checkpoint and turned a corner, TV cameras were sitting there waiting for players from either team walk into the arena. NBC and Sportsnet had its TV trucks right down the hallway, where many staff members mingled. It set in just how many people are involved in putting together a national broadcast.
There were multiple momentum swings in Game 2, but the biggest occurred when Fiddler was hit with a five-minute major for kneeing Blues defenseman Colton Parayko late in the first period. Vladimir Tarasenko made the Preds pay, scoring 20 seconds before intermission.
The Preds were able to stabilize the game and even took the lead 3:07 into the third period when Ryan Ellis slapped an absolute rocket past Allen. But the rest of regulation didn’t go the Preds’ way. Jori Lehtera tied the game four minutes later; Tarasenko delivered a dagger off a broken play with 3:51 remaining. The Preds’ valiant effort in the final moments wasn’t enough, as they fell 3-2 in a hard-fought battle.
What stood out after the game was an overriding theme of the Preds’ playoff run – they never got too high after wins, too low after losses.
“There’s no time to be frustrated,” Ryan Johansen said. “We’ve got a great hockey club in here and we feel we didn’t play very well here in St. Louis. We have another level we can get to.”
Boarding the plane after the game, it was an incredible moment seeing Fiala sitting there with his girlfriend. Just 48 hours beforehand, he was wheeled off the ice with a substantial leg injury. Teammates and staff members walked by Fiala while getting off the plane, giving fist-bumps and showing their support.
Prior to Game 3, the last time the Predators had hosted a national NBC broadcast in Nashville was 2008 – Game 6 vs. Detroit. With Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire on the call, Smashville brought it for a rare Sunday matinee. So much so that at one point McGuire urged viewers around America to put a Predators game in Nashville on their “bucket list.” As an organization, you can’t get a better sales pitch than that.
Bridgestone Arena was rocking from start to finish. Ellis got things started as a power play expired, snapping a shot through the wickets of Allen. Cody McLeod continued the onslaught in the second period, sliding home a rebound to give the Preds a 2-0 lead. The Blues’ first shot of the middle frame cut the Preds’ lead to 2-1 entering the third period.
Throughout the postseason, the Preds had a knack for coming up with game-changing plays in key moments in third periods. It started in the Chicago series by scoring twice in Game 3 to force overtime (and eventually winning), and then finishing them off in Game 4 to complete the sweep.
The trend carried over into the second round. On this day, the Preds had the Blues hemmed in their defensive zone for multiple line changes. The crowd started to feel it, the noise building in anticipation for a potential game-sealing goal.
Then came “The Shift,” as it’s been coined.
“The Shift” lasted 1:26 in time, where two full line changes took place and 13 Preds players hit the ice – without the puck leaving the offensive zone! After a marathon cycling of the puck in the zone, where two full line changes took place, Roman Josi’s eventual shot from the point eluded Allen. It was the only shot on goal of the shift. Blues defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson were on the ice for the entire 1:26 in their own zone.
“Everybody did a great job of being patient,” Josi said after the game. It was the perfect exclamation point to a 3-1 victory.
Game 3 became the highest-rated TV game in team history, registering a 9.4 in Nashville. It wasn’t the last time this postseason they’d break TV rating records of their own.
The Preds-Blues second round series was very different stylistically from the first round matchup against Chicago. Unlike the matchup of speed vs. speed against the Blackhawks, Preds-Blues was a chess match with a lot of physicality. Game 4 was a prime example of that.
Scoreless through 40 minutes of action, one goal felt like it could be enough to win. That sentiment was even shared by head coach Peter Laviolette after the game. That thought was displayed by Laviolette, too, when the bench boss delivered a fist pump seen ‘round the interwebs as Ellis opened the scoring at 5:09 of the third.
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) May 3, 2017
Ellis’ goal came on the power play, via a post-whistle skirmish that resulted in two Blues penalties as opposed to the Preds’ one. The Blues were not happy, leading head coach Mike Yeo to rip the officiating after the game.
“Every stoppage, they’re yelling at the refs, talking to the refs and it worked there,” Yeo said. “It’s worked all series, let’s be honest. We had one game where we’ve had more power plays than them and the other three, they’re winning that category, clearly.”
As it turned out, one goal wouldn’t have been enough for the Preds.
Midway through the third, with the Blues trying to break through, James Neal was forechecking on a line change. He stole the puck and proceeded to throw a fadeaway wrister at the net. Allen didn’t expect it; the fans didn’t expect it. The casual shot from Neal beat Allen top shelf, though, resulting in a lightning bolt of thunderous noise from the home faithful.
The Blues added a late goal, but their comeback effort was too little, too late.
Two observations stemmed from this 2-1 victory to put the Preds up 3-1 in the series:
1. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was clear just how invested they were in this playoff run – the Lavy fist pump; Ellis skating into and slamming the glass after his goal; Neal being tackled by teammates after his eventual game-winner. Of course, every team wants to win in the playoffs. But the Preds flat-out wanted it.
2. This was a game where you started to feel the Preds had as good a chance as anyone left in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. It was obvious that the Blues’ physical style of play wasn’t getting to the Preds. In fact, they dished out just as much physicality in the series. The Preds had also kept Tarasenko quiet in back-to-back games. They were showing the ability to overcome any obstacle, win any game thrown their way.
In the early years of the Predators franchise, there was a tendency for a few opposing fan bases to invade the arena – especially Detroit and St. Louis. I remember an April matinee game against St. Louis in April of 2004. The Preds had a chance to clinch their first-ever playoff spot in Game 81, and many busloads of Blues fans made the trip. The Blues won that game to put a halt to the Preds’ celebration – at least for a few hours until the playoff berth was officially clinched.
For Game 5, Scottrade Center witnessed a dose of this as Preds fans turned the tables. It was a Friday night and the Preds were one win away from their first-ever trip to the Western Conference Final, so it was an easy decision for a few hundred Preds fans to make the five-hour drive.
Those in attendance that evening witnessed the chess match continue between Central Division rivals. Premier scoring chances were hard to come by on this night.
Dmitrij Jaskin opened the scoring for St. Louis in the second period; James Neal tied it up at 1-1 with a power play goal. A defensive lapse 25 seconds into the third period led to Jaden Schwartz’s rebound goal, giving the Blues a 2-1 lead that would stand as the final score.
During a stoppage in the final moments of the game, the arena flashed a picture of the disastrous floods just west of the city. It put things in perspective. The Preds didn’t come out on top in an intense playoff game, but more important things were going on in St. Louis.
Earlier that morning, as Darren McFarland and I made our way up to the press box for the broadcast of 3D, we observed two Scottrade Center workers discussing the game that night. “We’re going to win tonight, win Sunday and win Game 7. The Preds just can’t handle us,” one staffer said.
Hours later, in the bowels of the arena following the Blues’ win, staffers were high-fiving each other. One said, “We’ll see you Tuesday, baby!” Game 7, if necessary, was scheduled for Tuesday.
Little did they know that would be the last Blues game they’d work this season.
This was the most anticipated game in Preds history, to date. It was a chance, at home and in front of a national TV audience, to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time. A standing-room only crowd filtered into Bridgestone Arena well before puckdrop. Hundreds of fans without a ticket gathered on the plaza to watch Game 6 in picture-perfect weather.
The Blues would not go away quietly, however. Paul Stastny quieted the Smashville faithful just 2:04 into a first period in which the Preds weren’t sharp. They recorded just five shots on goal and passes weren’t connecting. The crowd grew tense as the opening frame ended with their Preds trailing 1-0. That would change quickly in the second period.
One of the most important goals of this second-round was scored by Roman Josi just 35 seconds into the second period. Mattias Ekholm found a wide-open Josi backdoor for a one-timer that tied the game at 1-1. Suddenly, there was new life in the team and in the building.
A mini phenomenon in Bridgestone Arena this postseason was the emergence of “Glorious Domination”, wrestler Bobby Roode’s introductory theme music. Starting on this day, it was played at the beginning of third periods and after victories.
The Preds’ performance in the third period was certainly glorious, starting with Ryan Johansen’s highlight-reel go-ahead tally 3:15 into the final frame. Viktor Arvidsson, quiet for most of the series, delivered a beautiful saucer pass to Johansen, who buried a forehand-backhand move past a sprawling Jake Allen.
The crowd did not sit down for the final 16:45 of the game, trying to will the Preds to a franchise-record eighth playoff victory and trip to the conference final.
With 60 seconds remaining in regulation, with the Blues pushing to force overtime, Calle Jarnkrok scored into an empty net to give the Preds a 3-1 advantage.
The Nashville Predators were headed to their first-ever Western Conference Final.
Bridgestone Arena was pure chaos. With another franchise milestone reached, there were tears of joy across Middle Tennessee and fans were running around the concourse crazily. Emotions were running high in the radio booth for Pete Weber and Chris Mason, two individuals who have seen firsthand the highs and lows of the franchise.
“Oh my gosh,” Mason said as the final horn sounded. “I can’t believe it. I seriously – what an accomplishment. We just witnessed history.”
As a radio station, we had printed posters with the headline of “HISTORY”, celebrating the Preds’ trip to the conference final. It was such a popular item inside Barrel House after the game that we ordered another batch.
After every win, a Preds player is awarded the dog chain, an honor signifying hard work en route to coming away victorious. The honoree on this day was Johansen, who scored the series-clinching goal. He had one word his teammates…
— NHL (@NHL) May 8, 2017
A series after silencing Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Preds held Tarasenko to just two goals in six games. Pretty impressive for a player that has scored 10 goals and 22 points in 24 career regular-season games. After the second round, the Preds were odds-on favorites in Las Vegas to win the Stanley Cup. Through two rounds they proved they were worthy of all the preseason hype back in the fall.
Coming tomorrow … Witnessing History: Round 3 vs. Anaheim