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. Earlier this week was Chicago and St. Louis; today is Anaheim…
Even though it was the Predators’ first-ever trip to the Western Conference Final, every game along the way felt like “just another game” along the journey to the ultimate goal. Even during Game 1 in Anaheim, the magnitude of the moment hadn’t quite set in … until they won Game 1 in overtime.
Standing downstairs waiting for media availability to begin, you could tell there’s a lot going on outside the Predators dressing room. I peeled back the curtain and saw a handful of players doing TV interviews all at once in the moments after a huge series-opening win.
James Neal, the overtime hero, had the Hockey Night in Canada towel around his neck being interviewed by Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson. P.K. Subban was doing an interview with TVA in Canada, among other players spending a minute with different TV networks. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the big time.”
One of the biggest differences between the second and third rounds is the national attention bestowed on the team and the series. No longer is there an out-of-town scoreboard to watch. During the conference finals, it’s the only game going on around the league that night.
Showtime started their “All Access: Quest for the Stanley Cup” show during the conference finals, featuring the four teams still standing. The Preds even hosted a media availability session at the team hotel on the eve of Game 1, as reporters from NHL Network, NHL.com and NBC Sports were in attendance.
The anticipation for the series to commence was off the charts – unless you were relying on Ducks fans to dictate the anticipation.
If you are aggravated by Nashville traffic and haven’t lived through the traffic in Los Angeles, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as Bachman Turner-Overdrive once sang. Especially on a Friday, in this instance. But still, I have never seen a crowd as late-arriving as the one in Honda Center. The building was maybe 60 percent full at puck drop of Game 1 – of the Western Conference Final! That didn’t change throughout the series, even with Games 2 and 5 falling on a weekend.
Fans sitting in their cars missed a fast start to the series opener, as the Ducks and Preds both scored in the first 13 minutes of the game. But the Preds were pushing the pace, outshooting the Ducks 13-1 at one point in the first period. That momentum carried into the middle frame, as Austin Watson gave the Preds a 2-1 lead going into second intermission.
Vintage Pekka Rinne made an appearance in the third period. With the Preds leading 2-1 early on, Ryan Getzlaf had a prime opportunity to tie the game. However, Rinne stretched his leg like Gumby to keep the puck out of the net with his left pad. The save sent Twitter into a frenzy.
Moments later, though, Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm tied the game at 2-2 at the 7:21 mark of the third. This game was headed to overtime.
ESPN 102.5 The Game’s Willy Daunic, TV voice of the Preds, discussed what it was like being near the locker room as overtime began:
“It was very intense and nervous. It was completely quiet. The players that were scratched that night filtered downstairs. Craig Smith popped out of the locker room to the hallway with a big bag of popcorn and he scooped up more popcorn and said ‘I just can’t stop eating popcorn.’ He was nervous.
“In the locker room those guys were watching the game on television, but also were rearranging the buckets of bubble gum, debating which color of gum to chew – doing anything for good luck. When James Neal scored the goal, it was an exhilarating moment as the whole room exploded in celebration.
“As I’m walking out of the room, I could hear the guys coming back in from the bench, yelling, screaming and celebrating. And then they cranked up the music (“Giving the Dog a Bone” by AC/DC) and it was blaring. To watch all of that up close was an interesting dynamic.”
Neal’s winner was the punctuation mark to a great shift by the Preds, where they lived in the Ducks’ zone. Subban faked a slap shot and slid a perfect pass over to Neal, who one-timed the puck through a mass of humanity lying in the crease.
One of the lasting photographic memories of the playoff run was seeing Neal skate down the ice, arms in the air, with his teammates skating over to mob him to celebrate a Game 1 win. As I scurried to the elevator to head downstairs, I popped my head in the radio booth and high-fived Chris Mason, who was in the middle of his analysis of the Neal game-winner. We’d both admit we’ve connected on better high-fives in our time.
For the third consecutive series, the Preds grabbed a Game 1 victory on the road. Impressive. It was revealed after the season that Neal broke his hand in the game he scored the overtime winner. Also impressive.
Breakout star Viktor Arvidsson was a lot more effective against Anaheim than he was against St. Louis. And it really came to the forefront in Game 2.
He feathered a beautiful pass to spring Ryan Johansen loose on a breakaway goal to open the scoring. Arvidsson’s hard work paid off again in the second, when his wraparound attempt ended up on the stick of Filip Forsberg, who buried the puck into a gaping net. The Preds held a 3-2 lead midway through the game.
Despite Forsberg’s go-ahead goal, Anaheim kept its foot on the gas and scored three unanswered goals to close out a 5-3 victory and tie the series at 1-1.
What happened on the ice wasn’t the story, though.
Showtime’s all-access show was fantastic throughout the final two rounds. Like HBO’s 24/7 shows of the past, there was no filter. During Game 1, Johansen was mic’d up and told Ryan Kesler before a faceoff, “You’re a f****** joke. Nobody likes you.” That episode aired after Johansen sounded off following the Preds’ Game 2 loss…
Question: Ryan Kesler’s known to be a pretty good defensive center in this league; he’s been up for some awards. Has he gone over the line in this series?
Johansen: He just blows my mind. I don’t know what’s going through his head out there. His family and his friends watching him play – I don’t know how you can cheer for a guy like that. It just doesn’t make sense how he plays the game. I’m just trying to go out there and play hockey and it sucks when you have to pull a stick out of your groin every shift.
At that point, whatever rivalry the Preds and Ducks had built up from previous playoff meetings instantly went to a new level. The attention of the hockey world was squarely on this series, for good reason.
The team flew home the next afternoon – and it hit me during that flight: “How in the world did the Preds manage to fly out here five different times during last year’s playoffs?” Granted, I don’t make many flights to the west coast. But the jet lag is real, especially when you keep shuffling back and forth. I don’t think it was overstated how much it truly affected them last spring.
Before every home playoff game I would receive a text from a friend asking this question: “Who’s singing the anthem tonight?”
It grew into a phenomenon. And it was brilliant. Casual viewers were tuning in to see who would sing the anthem and get the crowd fired up. They stayed for the game, too, as the numbers proved throughout the playoffs.
Arguably the best anthem/hype-men combo of the postseason came in Game 3. Country music star Keith Urban beautifully (and quickly) sang the national anthem. He was followed by the theatrics of the Titans’ offensive linemen, who brought the house down. Before the big uglies chugged their beers, Taylor Lewan held up a giant catfish to the sky. Afterwards, Quinton Spain proudly stripped off his Preds jersey. Quarterback Marcus Mariota settled on only waving the rally towel.
Tennessee Titans offensive linemen crushing tallboys to fire up the crowd in Nashville
Go Preds. pic.twitter.com/v1sHACFVqo
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 17, 2017
Bridgestone Arena continued its rowdy rampage as Johansen and Kesler jostled on the opening faceoff. Some pundits were afraid Kesler was getting into Johansen’s head. But in the first period it appeared to be the opposite, as Kesler was more fixated on trying to annoy Johansen than actually playing hockey.
As the Preds were buzzing on the game’s first shift, Arvidsson had a great scoring chance in the slot that went just over the net. It was loudest “ohhhhhhh” from a crowd I’ve ever heard on a just-wide opportunity. The consistent noise level in the building showed just how much the crowd was amped to witness the team’s first-ever conference final home game.
The Preds heavily outplayed the Ducks in the game; the shots were 40-20 in their favor at the end of the night. But the scoreboard didn’t reflect that after 40 minutes, as Anaheim led 1-0.
In just about every playoff game held in Smashville, there was a little bit of third period magic. Same song, different dance, in Game 3.
Filip Forsberg’s clutch postseason continued as he tied the game early in the third period. Then later on in the third, as overtime looked possible, Ducks forward Chris Wagner committed an offensive-zone high-sticking penalty. It proved costly.
Mattias Ekholm’s power-play shot was inadvertently blocked by Arvidsson in front of the net, but it ricocheted perfectly to an unguarded Roman Josi, who buried the puck into an open net and a sea of noise. The Preds took a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Anaheim didn’t even get off a shot attempt in the final 2:43 after Josi’s goal.
Chas Kelly, our awesome Marketing & Promotions Coordinator at ESPN 102.5 The Game, captured a stunning video of the game-winner.
For all of you wondering what the “hype is” about #Smashville:
— 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) May 17, 2017
Looking outside, the plaza was buzzing like never before. Inside, the concourse was absolutely bonkers. Preds fans were running around with sheer joy as everyone streamed out from the lower bowl, chanting “Let’s Go Preds!” at a deafening pitch.
You’d think I’m describing the scene after a win. I’m not. This is what all of Smashville was like during the intermission immediately after Filip Forsberg tied Game 4 at 2-2 with 34.5 seconds remaining in regulation. Pandemonium. Elation. Exuberance. All of the above.
In fact, that goal resulted in the loudest recorded decibel level at an NHL game.
— 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) May 19, 2017
Just minutes prior, the Preds had trailed 2-0. They just couldn’t capitalize on their chances in front of Ducks goalie John Gibson. But as we’ve said many times before in that building: All they need is one goal and it could get interesting.
As a power play expired, P.K. Subban ripped a slap shot from the point that found its way to the back of the net with 6:27 left in the third period. Suddenly, there was life.
The Preds were getting chances, too. They were the recipients of two more power plays after Subban’s goal – both were squandered – and kept getting good looks at Gibson. And then Forsberg eventually tied it.
I don’t know if that goal happens, though, if James Neal’s initial shot doesn’t deflect high in the air behind the net. Players either lost sight of the puck or stopped skating. Forsberg hustled to the net and jammed the puck between Gibson’s legs. I’m still convinced to this day that the crowd somehow willed that puck into the net to tie the game.
The overtime period was fairly even, as both teams were generated chances. Anaheim’s Corey Perry cashed in at 10:25 of the extra frame, with teammate Nate Thompson parked in front of Pekka Rinne.
Perry took a needle to Bridgestone Arena’s balloon as there was dead silence. Despite the late-game heroics, the Game 4 loss was the Preds’ first home defeat of the playoffs.
The third period comeback was one of the most impressive (and memorable) efforts of the Preds’ postseason. The team refused to die on home ice.
As we were 10,000 feet in the air making the four-hour trek to SoCal, pre- and post-game host Darren McFarland randomly turned on his wifi – only to discover a tweet from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that had just been put out: Ryan Johansen was having season-ending surgery. McFarland and I looked at each other in disbelief, jaws successfully hitting the floor.
A couple days later it was revealed Johansen was treated for an acute compartment syndrome of the left thigh, an injury he suffered during Game 4. It was a devastating piece of news at a critical time of the playoff run.
What does a team do when its No. 1 center goes down for the season, two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final? This Preds team simply found a way.
Many lineup questions arose, given the news. What was the status of Mike Fisher, who also left Game 4 due to injury? Would Vladislav Kamenev make his playoff debut in Johansen’s place? What about Frederick Gaudreau, who played nine regular-season games in Nashville?
With the Western Conference Final turning into a best-of-3 entering Game 5, unsung heroes emerged in the biggest game of the franchise’s history.
A couple hours before the puck dropped, there was media availability with three Preds players: Pontus Aberg, Mattias Ekholm and Colin Wilson. Ekholm and Wilson exuded confidence in the locker room despite the Johansen news. “Nothing changes for us,” Ekholm said in that moment. “Guys know how to step in and do a good job. We’re confident in our group.”
Aberg sat there quietly, with his chin on his hand.
Fast forward to the third period, score tied at 1-1. After the Ducks threatened to score, Ekholm carried the puck down ice and into the offensive zone as he was at the end of his shift. He found Forsberg, who snapped a shot at Ducks goalie Jonathan Bernier. Forsberg’s shot was stopped, but Aberg pounced on the rebound and put it home to give the Preds a 2-1 lead with 8:59 to go.
Hours after he wasn’t asked a single question at the podium, Aberg became the 16th different Preds player to score in the playoffs – and it was the biggest goal in franchise history to date.
To make a long playoff run, some breaks certainly have to go your way. While not having Johansen and Fisher in the lineup for Game 5 was a tough blow, the Ducks had injury issues of their own. It was revealed during warmups that Rickard Rakell would not be available to play. Gibson left the game after the first period and was replaced by Bernier.
With the Ducks pushing to tie the game in the final minute, another small break went the Preds’ way. The Ducks were getting some offensive-zone time, but Silfverberg’s stick broke in half on a pass attempt. That disrupted their flow and resulted in Austin Watson intercepting the puck and shooting it almost full-length of the ice and into the empty net.
Another photographic memory of the playoff run was Watson being mobbed by his teammates at the bench. It was a mass bearhug as the Preds took a 3-1 lead with 47.2 seconds remaining. As Pete Weber would say, the bench was “going ape.”
In the face of adversity, without two key centermen, the Preds had just shocked the hockey world by winning the all-important Game 5.
This game was not for the faint of heart. Only 57 hits were recorded; it certainly seemed like more than that. Rinne was spectacular in net, making 32 saves. You can make an argument it was the most impressive win in Preds history. To win that game spoke volumes about the character in that room.
When the flight landed at 3:30 that next afternoon, I texted a friend of mine who was already there. I asked him if there was a big crowd outside. His response: “Unbelievable. There is no lie probably 1,000 people here.”
He was right. It was one of the coolest scenes you could imagine. Of all the crowds over the years that have shown up to welcome the Preds home, this was by far the biggest. Players high-fived fans, signed autographs and took pictures as they walked through a sea of gold back to their cars.
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) May 21, 2017
As the players, fans, coaches and media went their separate ways that Sunday afternoon, time for celebration was over. Game 6 still needed to be played the next day. And the Preds were one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
My first NHL playoff game was the inaugural playoff game in Predators history. My dad, brother and I sat in section 302 in what was Gaylord Entertainment Center at the time. For this game, my brother and I sat in 304 – two sections over from where we witnessed the Predators beat the Red Wings in Game 3 of the 2004 Western Conference Quarterfinals.
It wasn’t just another playoff game. It was Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, where a win would send the Predators to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final. It was surreal.
Before walking into the arena, we took in the scene outside. A third viewing screen had been added, this one on 5th Avenue outside the team store. Walk of Fame Park was already filling up, as was the plaza. This was 5 pm on a Monday, mind you. We witnessed the boxed-up Western Conference Champions apparel being wheeled into the pro shop entrance, causing my brother to blurt out, “That stuff better not go to Haiti!”
The party-like atmosphere carried into Bridgestone Arena as Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala stood side-by-side, waving rally towels prior to puckdrop. It didn’t stop. Austin Watson opened the scoring at 1:21. Colton Sissons made it 2-0 just seven minutes later.
Despite the lead, the Preds were outplayed in the first two periods of play. Anaheim led 25-8 in shots and Ondrej Kase’s goal early in the second had the Preds holding a precarious 2-1 lead through 40 minutes. Pekka Rinne stood tall in net, though, making one clutch save after another to keep his team on top.
The top line of Forsberg-Sissons-Aberg was the team’s best in the final two games of the series. Impressive, given the fact they were thrown together as a trio due to the injury to Johansen. And three minutes into the third, the hard work of that line resulted in Sissons scoring his second of the game as Anaheim defenseman Brandon Montour did his best Mannequin Challenge impression in front of Bernier.
With the way Rinne was playing, plus 17 minutes remaining, three goals felt like it could be enough. It wasn’t. Chris Wagner and Cam Fowler scored 3:52 apart to tie the game at 3-3.
For the next five minutes, you could cut the tension with a knife. Fans were getting restless, especially when Roman Josi committed a delay of game penalty. The Ducks were surging and going on the power play. Uh oh.
Similar to late in Game 5, a small break made a potentially big difference for the Preds. In an attempt to clear the puck out of the defensive zone, Watson put it in the crowd. The officials huddled up to discuss what was inches away from being another delay of game penalty. But they made the right call – which was no call – as the puck in fact bounced off the very top of the glass.
Thirty-three seconds later, as Josi’s penalty expired, Sissons slapped a one-timer past Bernier to complete the hat trick. On the radio call, Brent Peterson shouted, “Oh my goodness!” – which is precisely how everyone in Smashville felt in that exact moment.
When you go back and look at the play, there are FIVE Ducks players in the zone compared to the two for the Preds (Sissons and Calle Jarnkrok). If you count Bernier, six Ducks could have either stopped the puck from getting to Sissons or going into the net. They were ALL looking at Jarnkrok. That’s when you know it’s your night.
Since Sissons’ second goal was initially announced as Aberg’s, fans didn’t realize it was officially a hat trick until PA announcer Paul McCann said so at the ensuing whistle. Hats littered the ice. Whatever tension filled the building was immediately gone. Smashville was ready to party.
Forsberg and Watson each scored an empty-net goal to pull away for a 6-3 victory.
“Sit down if you need, folks,” said Pete Weber on the radio call. “The Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final.”
Bridgestone Arena has had a good number of special moments over the years. The clock hitting zeroes and the Preds celebrating a Western Conference title definitely takes the cake. There were real tears around the building and city. Whether you were a Day One season ticket holder or jumped on board two years ago, it was an incredible moment for everyone involved.
As the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl was being brought out to center ice, I immediately flashed back to the good times and bad times we’ve experienced with this franchise.
There was once a game in 2007 between the Preds and Ducks where not much more than 11,000 people attended to watch the NHL’s two-best teams go head-to-head. Ten years later, the two teams met in a deciding game in the conference final in front of a standing-room-only crowd and more outside watching.
Also, Game 6 fell on the day before the 10-year anniversary of Jim Balsillie’s attempt to purchase the franchise with the intent of moving it to Hamilton, Ontario. I really hope he was watching on this night, as Smashville shined in front of a national audience.
In the locker room, General Manager David Poile shared hugs and handshakes with many players. With all the blood, sweat and tears he’s poured into the organization, no one deserved to be wearing a conference championship hat more than he did. When interviewed on Fox Sports Tennessee’s post game, Daunic closed it out by saying “You guys are the Western Conference Champions.” Poile’s response, with a chuckle: “Can you say that again?”
As fans celebrated on the streets and in local establishments, the team hosted a party inside the arena for its full-time staff members. It was really cool seeing Pete Weber and Terry Crisp take in a moment they’ve been waiting to see since Day One. Those two, as a broadcast tandem, taught many Nashvillians the sport of hockey.
On the radio network’s postgame show, Peterson – another original member in the organization – got emotional multiple times when talking about what the Preds had just achieved.
The fact that Sissons, Aberg and Watson were named the game’s Three Stars seemed fitting for how Games 5 and 6 transpired. With Johansen and Fisher out of the lineup, that trio stepped up in a big way. The three combined to play 171 AHL games over the last two seasons – and there they were, helping carry the Preds into the Stanley Cup Final.
The ultimate goal was still four wins away. But the moments and memories from the night they won the West will be remembered forever.
Coming tomorrow … Witnessing History: Stanley Cup Final vs. Pittsburgh