The NHL conference finals are upon us, and after a semifinal round that showcased the league’s most intense rivalry, two close Game 7s, and stellar performances from young phenoms, the final four matchups are … frankly, unenticing. Out East it’s a battle between the defending Stanley Cup champs and the Erik Karlssons (a series exciting only to those who root for soul-sucking dynasties or teams with a system designed to clog and stifle play), and in the West, the unlikable Ducks buried their Game 7 demons at the expense of one of the most fun, youthful teams in the league. (A live look at me, clutching on to this season’s Oilers memories.)
So, uncommitted hockey fans are left with just one viable rooting option for the remainder of the playoffs: the Nashville Predators.
Prior to this season, the Predators were one of the more overlooked franchises in the NHL. Despite being consistently competitive — the Preds have gone to the playoffs 10 times in the 18 seasons that they’ve existed — their relative newness to the league, Southern location, and inability to pass the second round had kept them off the mainstream radar.
The perception started to change last January, when the Predators traded Seth Jones to Columbus for first-line center Ryan Johansen. Then, last summer, Nashville further solidified its roster by trading face-of-the-franchise defenseman Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban and signing fifth-year winger Filip Forsberg to a six-year, $36 million extension. Though the Preds barely squeaked into the playoffs this season, they advanced to the conference finals in fewer games than any of the remaining teams (sweeping their archrival Chicago Blackhawks along the way). Backed by a staunch defensive unit and solid goaltending, the Preds look poised to make a run to their first-ever Stanley Cup finals.
In a postseason that likely peaked in the conference-semifinal round, Nashville is our hope to keep these playoffs fun. Here are five reasons to hop aboard the Smashville Express.
1. The Fans
While the Predators were a middle-of-the-road team in recent years, their fan base made enough noise to get noticed as one of the best home crowds in the league. Glowing articles have been written about the Nashville faithful for years; naturally, given their location, some of the world’s biggest country music stars have joined the fanfare. Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, and Carrie Underwood, among others, are self-proclaimed Preds heads (Underwood’s husband is captain Mike Fisher). But that notoriety wasn’t born out of thin air.
After the team’s founding in 1999, ex-NHLer Terry Crisp and Predators play-by-play man Peter Weber held “Hockey 101” seminars so prospective fans could learn about the sport and carve out the rowdy Nashville identity.
“Canadians treat hockey like a religion because Canadians believe they invented the sport, which they basically did,” Crisp told SB Nation. “But when you treat hockey like a religion, the atmosphere is the same, like going to church.” Nashville fans certainly don’t treat their arena like a service (unless you commonly bring large catfish into your place of worship and smash painted cars outside of it).
Nashville has managed to take the atmosphere of a disorderly dive bar — you know, the one with the mechanical bull — and plop it in Bridgestone Arena. The venue is as loud in volume as it is in color — a wave of 17,000-plus clad in the most vibrant yellow (“gold”) imaginable. It’s a sight that seems like it would be visible from space if someone removed the arena’s roof.
2. Whiskey for My Press Friends
Predators PR made “Survival Kits” for visiting members of the press to help them acclimate to the Nashville hockey culture. These goodie bags included Gatorade, hand sanitizer, gum, and (of course) a mini-bottle of Jack Daniel’s — you know, for after deadline.
This could be Nashville reasserting its claim as the Most Fun NHL City before Vegas bursts onto the scene next season, or, as my Ringer colleague Katie Baker suggested, the start of a new rivalry entirely: the Battle of the Bachelor(ette) Party Destination Cities.
3. The Actual Team
In early March, Subban went on The Bill Simmons Podcast to discuss the state of the NHL, what he would do if he were commissioner, and a variety of other topics. At the end of the conversation, Subban made a prediction: “You’re definitely going to see us in the playoffs. That’s happening.”
At the time the Predators were hovering around a wild-card spot, trying to clear out space in the middle of the crowded Western Conference with about a month left to play. As Subban made his declaration, his voice was even and clear. This wasn’t a false proclamation or an overconfident boast, it was merely a fact. It was happening.
The Predators won nine of their last 16 games after the recording, grabbing the final playoff slot and setting themselves up for a matchup against the top-seeded Blackhawks. Behind Nashville’s swarming defense and the masterful play of goalie Pekka Rinne, Nashville shut out the Hawks in the first two games of the series and allowed just three total goals in a four-game sweep. It took six games for Nashville to close out the St. Louis Blues in the second round. Heading into the conference finals, Rinne leads all qualifying goaltenders with a .951 save percentage and 1.37 GAA.
The Predators’ defensemen are two-dimensional, totaling 27 points in the playoffs, while remaining the strongest back line left in the postseason. Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Subban are the reasons Rinne has faced just 288 shots this postseason, the lowest number of any netminder who’s played at least 10 games. And the team’s offensive threats — like Johansen and Forsberg — have loomed large. Seven players have recorded five points or more in the playoffs, and only three Preds have a negative plus-minus. They’re a solid squad with depth, range, and plenty of cellies to go around:
4. Victory Party at Tootsie’s
Last summer, on his first visit to Nashville after being traded to the Predators, Subban stopped at Tootsie’s, a honky-tonk bar famous for clientele like Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. There, accompanied by a band, Subban serenaded residents of his new home with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Video of the jam sesh went viral, as did P.K.’s onstage promise to bring a Stanley Cup to Nashville. Imagine then, less than a year after Subban’s initial visit, a Stanley Cup victory party at Tootsie’s. Maybe instead of just one song, we’d get a whole set. (Possibly a full cover album’s worth? I’m getting ahead of myself.)
After Subban’s breakout music video was released, Predators GM David Poile said that P.K. “has now been to Tootsie’s one more time than I have.” Maybe a victory party is just the excuse Poile needs to finally make the trip.
Last on the list, but definitely most important: Any team that sweeps the Blackhawks is a friend to all.