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, St. Louis and Anaheim; today is Pittsburgh…
Stanley Cup Final Media Day
Darren McFarland and I walked into the Media Day room inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. We were 30 minutes early, but media was already gathering. NHL Network had its setup to the right, with Tony Luftman and Kevin Weekes anchoring coverage. Eight podiums were spread out across the room to the left, awaiting Penguins and Predators players to answer countless questions – some pertaining to hockey, some not.
The NHL’s Stanley Cup Media Day isn’t quite as outlandish as the NFL’s is for the Super Bowl, but it does its best impersonation. Guillermo of “Jimmy Kimmell Live!” wasn’t present in Pittsburgh, but plenty of media asked Penguins players what they thought about catfish. Yes, many questions like that were asked.
You also had Nashville’s own P.K. Subban conducting his own interviews, including this one we captured with teammate Vern Fiddler…
— 102.5 The Game (@1025TheGame) May 28, 2017
Subban also had some fun asking questions to Mike Fisher and Ryan Ellis with the media following every step.
Before leaving for Pittsburgh, some of us around the station brainstormed a way to use a hockey stick to get the audio we needed for playback. Media scrums were bound to be 20-30 people large, or bigger, and we needed to be prepared to still get the audio.
So we MacGyver’d a hockey stick into a long microphone, which we duct taped to the end of it. The microphone’s cord was also wrapped around the stick and duct taped over, with a handheld recorder placed at the butt end of the stick. It wasn’t exactly craftsmanship at its finest. But it worked!
NBC’s Doc Emrick was seen going over notes with Austin Watson. Dozens of reporters surrounded Subban’s podium, before the star defenseman became a reporter himself. Little-used defenseman Brad Hunt said he had three media members come up to him during the festivities. A handful of players did interviews with NHL Network.
To see the Predators at the center of the hockey world was surreal. On the eve of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the team seemed to be loose in front of a media audience unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
When it comes to good sports towns across the nation, Pittsburgh is among the best. They have great fans and their teams have done more winning than losing in recent years. If you spend five minutes walking around the city, you can tell the Steel City bleeds black and gold.
The sidewalks were full of those two colors as the team bus received a police escort from the hotel to the arena, nearly three hours ahead of puckdrop. The viewing party outside PPG Paints Arena was already packed, while fans lined the gate next to the loading dock out back to give the Predators a warm welcome.
Going into Game 1, the Preds were looking to become the third team to ever to win four series openers on the road in a single postseason (1991 Minnesota North Stars; 2012 Los Angeles Kings). They came damn close.
As the stage got bigger and bigger as the postseason went along, no moment seemed to be too big for this Preds team. They were laser focused from the start of Game 1 in Chicago, all the way through the Western Conference Final. That didn’t change in the Stanley Cup Final – a destination only one Preds player had ever visited before (Mike Fisher).
The Preds played their brand of hockey early in Game 1 and pushed the pace. P.K. Subban seemed to have scored the series-opening goal at the 7:13 mark of the first period. The NHL’s video replay judges had other ideas.
Pittsburgh challenged for an offside that occurred earlier in the sequence, which had no bearing on the result of the goal. Nevertheless, the league determined Filip Forsberg’s right skate was lifted off the ice as he received a pass with his left skate across the blue line. Preds head coach Peter Laviolette was visibly displeased as the referee announced the call on the ice had been reversed to no goal.
The Preds had a chance to shake it off and get it back. But a few minutes later, the game took a turn. Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal were called for simultaneous penalties, giving the Penguins a full 5-on-3 advantage. The Preds nearly killed it all off, but Evgeni Malkin cashed in on a howitzer from the blue line that deflected off Pekka Rinne’s glove and into the net.
The Pens led 1-0. They weren’t done.
Sixty-five seconds after Malkin drew first blood, the Penguins made it 2-0 courtesy of a perfect tic-tac-toe passing play from Sidney Crosby to Chris Kunitz to Conor Sheary to the back of the net. Before the first period ended, the puck took an unfortunate bounce off Mattias Ekholm’s knee and behind Rinne.
A great start to the game was all for naught for the Preds. Pittsburgh carried a 3-0 lead into the intermission. It was the Preds’ first three-goal deficit of the postseason.
As seen in Showtime’s “All Access” show, Laviolette’s speech to an upbeat locker room after 20 minutes was the following:
“We’re faced with a little bit of adversity. The score of that period is worse than we played. The first 10 minutes of that period, they weren’t even in the f****** game.
“Believe me, the period was not as bad as it says – 3-0. What we need to do is win the second period. Get the next goal. We f****** flip this script right now [and] we’re back in the game. Let’s go.”
They flipped the script all right.
Ryan Ellis scored a power-play goal to get the Preds on the board and help them win the second period, as Laviolette encouraged them to do. In the process, the Preds didn’t allow a single shot on goal to Pittsburgh in the middle frame.
The Preds kept their foot on the gas in the third period. Colton Sissons was credited with a deflection goal to cut the deficit to 3-2. As a Penguins power play expired, Frederick Gaudreau scored his first NHL goal to tie the game at 3-3. PPG Paints Arena was mostly stunned silence, except for the couple hundred Preds fans boisterously cheering.
After trailing 3-0, the Preds had just tied the game. Unbelievable.
The tension inside the arena was quickly mounting as the Preds were buzzing around the Penguins net looking for a go-ahead goal. They almost got one from former Pens player James Neal, who hit the crossbar shortly after Gaudreau’s goal. Oh, what could’ve been?
Instead, moments later, Jake Guentzel fired a wicked wrister past Rinne to give the Penguins a 4-3 lead with just 3:17 remaining in the game. It was their first shot on goal in a whopping 37 minutes. The Preds couldn’t muster anything more, as Nick Bonino’s second goal of the game was an empty-netter.
The shots read 26-12 Predators. The scoreboard read 5-3 Penguins. It was arguably the most bizarre game in Stanley Cup Final history.
After its conclusion, when Laviolette was asked about the disallowed goal in the first period, he said, “The impact of that moment, and the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills, changed the course of the game.”
Minutes after meeting with the media, Laviolette and GM David Poile made a rare trip up to the press box to visit with the NHL’s video replay room.
The end result wasn’t going to change, however. Despite outplaying the defending champs, the Preds trailed a series for the first time in the playoffs.
Nashville Predators fans made their presence known in Pittsburgh throughout the Stanley Cup Final. Before Game 1, there was a pickup driving around downtown with a large Preds flag in the bed of the truck. An infamous “instrument of crime” was thrown on the ice.
On the afternoon of Game 2, Willy Daunic, Darren McFarland and I grabbed lunch at a local Primanti Bros. restaurant. In the 45 minutes we were there, at least 10 Preds fans shuffled into the restaurant and we noticed even more outside walking around Market Square. A father and his son sitting at the bar said they drove up from Nashville exclusively for Game 2.
As was the case for most Preds fans making the trip, it was cheaper to get a ticket in Pittsburgh, plus travel, than it was to buy a single ticket on the street outside Bridgestone Arena. Nashville had always been a destination where it was cheaper to travel and attend a game. Now it was the other way around.
The on-ice animosity ratcheted up in Game 2. Post-whistle board meetings became the norm. Displeasures started between P.K. Subban and Sidney Crosby. Mattias Ekholm dished out a jab to Jake Guentzel; took a big (clean) hit from Matt Cullen. Mike Fisher leveled Evgeni Malkin. Cody McLeod crushed Patric Hornqvist.
The Penguins spent two days talking about how much they didn’t like their Game 1 effort, despite the win. But the Preds were able to pick up where they left off by again pushing the pace to start Game 2. They registered 18 shots in the first period – the prettiest one coming from Pontus Aberg, who scored the definition of a highlight-reel goal.
Not only did Aberg undress Pens defenseman Olli Maatta, he gave the Preds a 1-0 lead 12:57 into the contest.
The 22-year-old Game 1 hero came through in the clutch for Pittsburgh yet again. Guentzel found an opening and threaded the puck through Rinne to tie the game at 1-1. But the Preds kept their foot on the gas, as Forsberg was robbed in the waning seconds by the left pad of Matt Murray.
Murray would again make a big save on Forsberg in a scoreless second period, heading into the third.
A competitive, well-played game quickly turned into a nightmare for the Preds. Three Penguins goals in a 3:18 span chased Rinne from the crease early in the third. Guentzel’s second of the game was his second game-winning goal of the series.
Trailing 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final, it could’ve been easy for the locker room to be down. It wasn’t. Subban made it clear the Preds were not out of this series.
“We don’t lose in our building,” he said. “So we’re going back home, we’re going to win the next game, and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
A couple dozen fans welcomed the team back home at 2 am. A few more fans would show up for Saturday’s festivities in Smashville.
Throughout the playoff run, the Preds captivated the region as they beat Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim en route to a Western Conference title.
It all came to a head for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
You could call what took place on Saturday, June 3rd, a perfect storm for it to be the best sports day ever in Nashville: The first-ever Stanley Cup Final home game; a beautiful Saturday afternoon; the fact that the arena is nestled on ever-popular Broadway. Nashville Metro PD estimated 50,000 people were downtown that afternoon/evening to take in the festivities. Fifty. Thousand.
While in Pittsburgh, ESPN’s Steve Levy stopped by our broadcast setup. Before going on the air he said, “We like Pittsburgh and this arena. But we cannot wait to get to Nashville.”
The sea of gold that spanned from the arena plaza all the way down Broadway to 1st Avenue was the talk of the sports world. Friends in other cities texted me that day saying they were getting goosebumps looking at the photos and videos they were seeing – and that was before the game even started.
Captain Mike Fisher had a very telling quote when the season was over: “I was driving to the rink before a game one night and it kind of just hit me about how united the city is at a time where there’s a lot of division, too, so it was kind of cool to see. It didn’t matter what political party or what race or whatever – it was just all about yellow and the city. And that was kind of cool to think about.
“People were all in for the Preds and we felt it and we appreciated it.”
Chase McCabe and I went on the air at 3 pm to start ESPN 102.5 The Game’s pregame coverage. Arena doors opened at 4 pm before a 7 pm puckdrop. By 4:30, Barrel House was packed with fans already in the building.
The anticipation inside the building, even before puckdrop, was unreal. It was about 80-90 percent full for warmups, as “Let’s Go Preds!” and “Pekka! Pekka!” chants echoed through the arena. I’d never seen anything like that for warmups before a sporting event.
Much of the Bridgestone Arena didn’t sit down, as it was a “bubbling cauldron” – as Doc Emrick would say – from the onset. However, the Penguins showed their mettle early in the game, with Guentzel scoring 2:46 in to give the road team a 1-0 lead.
The team quickly got back on the horse, while the rowdy home faithful wouldn’t let the energy die. Roman Josi eventually found the back of the net in the second period to even the score at 1-1. The opening of the floodgates commenced, as Gaudreau scored 42 seconds later.
In the blink of an eye the Preds went from down a goal, to up a goal.
The storyline going into Game 3 was the play of Rinne between the pipes. Some media members tried to create a story by asking Laviolette whether or not he’d start his $7 million netminder as opposed to rookie Juuse Saros.
Vintage Rinne rose to the occasion, as his sequence of back-to-back saves on Phil Kessel and Chris Kunitz was a game-saver. Who knows where that game goes if it gets tied at 2-2? Instead, James Neal’s goal from the side of the net gave the Preds a 3-1 cushion going into intermission.
As the Penguins attempted to get back in the game in the final period, a bounce finally went Nashville’s way in the series. Kunitz and Kessel got their wires crossed in a neutral zone rush, which caused the puck to bounce free. Craig Smith pounced, sped to a breakaway and buried the shot past Murray. 4-1. Later in the period, Ekholm added a goal for good measure. 5-1. Final.
Subban and Crosby exchanged words towards the end of the game. When asked by NBC’s Pierre McGuire what was said between the two, Subban said, “He told me my breath smelled, but I don’t know, I used some Listerine before the game so I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Subban was then asked about it by the media after the game:
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) June 4, 2017
Also, after a splendid 27-save performance from Rinne, Laviolette was asked about his decision to start the 34-year-old instead of turning to Saros. Laviolette’s response? “There was no decision.”
Everything about Game 3 in Smashville was magical. It couldn’t have been scripted any better. The party went deep into Sunday morning on Broadway.
As much as skill is a necessity to win in the playoffs, teams also need to have will. The Preds had an equal dosage of both for most of the spring, but when Ryan Johansen went down, their sheer heart and will helped them survive the conference final. Those intangibles, along with supreme confidence, carried them in a rough-and-tumble Game 4.
All of the above was on display in the second period of this important swing game of the Stanley Cup Final.
Early on in the second, Rinne made massive point-blank saves on Guentzel and Kunitz to keep the game tied 1-1. He then stopped Crosby on a breakaway later in the period, the first of a series of frantic saves that caused the hockey world to lose their minds.
The Finnish broadcast call of Pekka Rinne’s diving save in Game 4 is awesome pic.twitter.com/VqN8ZMdNkD
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) June 6, 2017
It was arguably the most clutch period of hockey he’s ever played. Remember when people wanted Saros to start Game 3?
Soon after Rinne stoned Kunitz, Murray seemed to make an equally as big save on the other end against Gaudreau. Moments later, a horn sounded to stop play. Austin Watson slammed his stick against the boards as the horn sounded at a time when the Preds were looking to take the puck down ice. But on the bench, Colton Sissons was heard on Showtime’s All Access show saying, “I think that might have been in.”
It was. The puck snuck in under Murray’s blocker. Gaudreau was awarded his third goal of the Cup Final (and his NHL career). The Preds took a 2-1 lead. The Smashville faithful gave it to Murray by serenading his name… over and over again.
The best example of heart and will came on the Preds’ third goal. Pinched up against the boards in the defensive zone, Neal made a lunging poke to get the puck to the neutral zone. From there, Fisher did the same exact thing, laying out on the ice to spring Viktor Arvidsson on a breakaway, where he scored his first goal since the first round.
Arvidsson saluted the crowd, while everyone in attendance saluted the efforts of Fisher and Neal to create the goal-scoring play.
Rinne continued to be spectacular in the third period, putting an end to any comeback attempt the Penguins made. Forsberg scored into a yawning net to seal the deal. 4-1 was the final.
After the game, Rinne passed the dog chain to Gaudreau, who scored back-to-back game-winning goals. As seen on Showtime’s All Access, Gaudreau said to a cheerful locker room, “That’s great boys. Let’s stay focused on the moment. Let’s go!”
You figured Game 4 would be tougher than Game 3 for the Preds. And Pittsburgh brought their best game of the series, to date. They were arguably the better team. But it wasn’t enough.
The Penguins threw a right punch to start the series. The Preds countered with a jab of their own on home ice. The series was headed back to the Steel City as a best-of-three.
Many wondered if the amount of games the Penguins had played dating back to the start of the 2016 playoffs was catching up with them. The Preds were arguably the better team for most of the series’ first four games and seemingly had momentum after their Game 4 victory.
Most would tell you, though, that momentum doesn’t exist in the playoffs. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun told Darren McFarland and Willy Daunic on ESPN 102.5 The Game the morning of Game 5 that he believed the Penguins would benefit from the extra day of rest between games than the Preds.
Before warmups started, I walked down near the glass where a few hundred Preds fans were standing. A group of friends drove up from Franklin. A father and son made the trip from Clarksville. Two ladies flew in from Toronto. Another couple flew in from Nashville just hours beforehand, with the husband saying, “We’ve been waiting for a game like this for years.”
Unfortunately for those Preds fans that spent good money to go to Game 5, the team laid an egg on the ice.
A lot of credit goes to the Penguins and their fans. It was considerably louder inside PPG Paints Arena compared to the first two games of the Final. Did they take offense to all the national attention being placed on Nashville’s fans? It they treated it as a challenge, the challenge was accepted.
Sidney Crosby set the tone for the game when he split two defenders and drew a penalty on the opening shift. Justin Schultz scored on the ensuing power play for the Pens, giving them a 1-0 lead 91 seconds into the game.
A few minutes later, Bryan Rust ripped a perfectly-placed backhander past Rinne to give the Pens a 2-0 lead.
Once it looked like the Preds had stemmed the tide and got in a groove, Crosby and Subban were inexplicably called for offsetting holding penalties. How Crosby didn’t receive an extra two minutes for continually slamming Subban’s head on the ice was baffling.
On the ensuing 4-on-4, Malkin scored a back-breaking goal to give the Penguins a 3-0 lead going into intermission.
The 3-0 lead the Pens possessed in Game 5 felt different than their 3-0 lead in Game 1. They took over for most of the 20 minutes and, for the first time in the series, truly looked like the defending champs.
Laviolette put Saros in net for Rinne to start the second period, but the goalie change didn’t yield different results. The Pens scored three more goals in the middle frame to carry a 6-0 lead through 40 minutes, which was eventually the final score.
LeBrun ended up being right about the rest playing to Pittsburgh’s advantage. Mike Sullivan had his team ready to play, they looked fresh and kicked their game up a couple notches.
The late-night flight home was quiet, but Preds fans that showed up at the airport were not. About 100 fans were there after midnight, loudly welcoming the team home despite the result. They sure as hell weren’t going to go away quietly.
— Willy Daunic (@WillyD1025) June 9, 2017
There was a confidence in Smashville that this series was going seven. While the Penguins blitzed the Preds in Game 5, the home team had won every game of the series. Also, the Preds held a 9-2 advantage in goals on home ice.
No matter the result, it was the last game in Nashville for the season. And everyone emptied the barrels – on and off the ice.
Bridgestone Arena was loud, but tense. The action on the ice was intense. The pace in which the game was played was breathtaking, with each squandered opportunity for either side adding to the predictable drama of an elimination game in the Stanley Cup Final.
Through five games, a lot was made about the play of the two goaltenders. It didn’t matter where Game 6 was played, however. Rinne and Murray were flat-out awesome from start to finish. Both made incredibly clutch saves in big moments.
Perhaps the most controversial moment of a series that had many of them came in the second period.
Forsberg shot the puck. Murray got a piece of it, but not enough as it trickled in the crease. Sissons poked it across the line. Simple as that, right? Except for the fact that referee Kevin Pollock inexplicably lost sight of the puck and blew his whistle. Smashville erupted, but only briefly before it was announced there was no goal on the play.
As seen on Showtime’s All Access, here was the exchange at the bench between Pollock and Laviolette:
Pollock: “Peter, I blew the whistle.”
Pollock: “Because I thought the goalie had it.”
Laviolette: “But he didn’t. He wasn’t even f****** closed up. The puck is so open.”
Pollock: “I thought he had it.”
Laviolette: “Again, eh? Here we go again.”
There were conspiracy theorists out there suggesting the NHL and its officiating favored the Penguins throughout the series – from the challenge in Game 1 to the mishandling of Crosby in Game 5 to the blown call on Sissons’ goal in Game 6. I would be stunned if that were the case.
However, for a team that was shorthanded from the start without Johansen in the lineup, as well as going up against the defending champs, you can’t afford to have such 50-50 calls go against you – almost every damn time.
Pollock blowing the call in this instance was unfortunately a game-changer. If the whistle hadn’t blown and the Preds took a lead in that building, there would have been a Game 7. You can’t convince me otherwise. The Preds did have power-play chances in the third period to break through. They didn’t. But the blown call on Sissons’ goal changed the game.
With each passing minute in the third period, the more tense the crowd got inside the building. I leaned over to an arena employee about during the final TV timeout and said, “It’s basically overtime right now.”
When Patric Hornqvist scored with 1:35 remaining to get the Pens on the board, it felt like a sledgehammer hit the entire arena and the entire city. Carl Hagelin scored into the empty net with 13.5 seconds left on the clock. 2-0 Penguins.
It was over.
The first memory I have of actually appreciating the moment of the Stanley Cup being lifted was 2001, when Joe Sakic passed the silver chalice to Ray Bourque and ABC’s Gary Thorne uttered the words, “After 22 years, Raymond Bourque!”
Ever since that moment, I have never missed watching the presentation of sports’ greatest trophy live. It is can’t-miss, must-see TV. It gives me chills, every time. So it was surreal seeing a trophy the hockey world worships being brought out on the ice. Yet, I wanted no part in watching another team celebrate on Smashville ice.
Darren McFarland and I reminisced on the post-game show in a quiet Barrel House. The result sucked, but the playoff run didn’t. But that was tough for anyone to hear in the moments following a gut-wrenching, season-ending loss.
Down in the locker room, it was somber. That team gave every single thing they had to win the Cup, and then some – from the opening puck drop of Game 1 in Chicago, to the final moments of the Stanley Cup Final.
As seen on Showtime’s All Access, Mike Fisher said to his teammates: “I’ve played a lot of years and I’ve never had so much fun. … We gave everything we had. We learned a lot about playing and working and life and just being a really big family. Thanks for the memories.”
Anything worth winning never comes easy. The Stanley Cup is definitely worth winning – and it definitely isn’t easy. For two months, we saw up close and personal just how difficult it is to go all the way. You have to have a good team. You have to have character. But you also need a little luck along the way, too.
The Nashville Predators had all of that this spring.
The Preds swept Chicago in four games. They physically pounded St. Louis in six games. In the face of adversity, they outlasted Anaheim in six games. And they forced the defending champs to a best-of-three scenario.
Sixty days. Twenty-two games. Fourteen wins. Two wins short of the ultimate goal.
For years we’ve always said, “Just wait until this city experiences a deep playoff run.” It happened. And it was awesome.
The Predators did the city and state proud with an epic playoff run that captivated a region. Smashville proved doubters of 10 years ago wrong, showing hockey does work in the south. We all knew it. They now know it. It just may be a little different from the cookie cutter franchise – but that’s what makes the City of Nashville and the Predators franchise special. Fans will talk about a catfish, laugh about a fist pump and sing along to a wrestling theme all summer long.
While the ultimate goal wasn’t reached, the memories of this playoff run will last a lifetime.