The game somehow lived up to the hype.
And considering the incredible build-up to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and Predators in Nashville, that's really saying something. The city has been establishing itself as a very good hockey market in recent years, but during the team's surprise run this spring to its first Cup Final, it has embraced the team like never before. By the time the Preds clinched the Western Conference title, the atmosphere both inside and outside Bridgestone Arena had gotten the attention of the hockey world. But the first home Cup Final game in franchise history took everything to another level.
Despite the Preds' 2-0 series deficit, the party in Nashville on Saturday began well before Martina McBride was unveiled as the night's mystery national anthem singer in one of the cooler modern playoff traditions.
In my short time covering hockey, I have never seen anything like this. Nashville is ridiculous right now. pic.twitter.com/pSCuXeGDda- Shawn McKenzie (@ShawnMcKenzieSN) June 3, 2017
After the pre-game festivities worked the crowd into a proper frenzy, Jake Guentzel opened the scoring for Pittsburgh with yet another goal, deflating the building just a bit. But Nashville's physical play in the first period kept the crowd into it, and helped keep the Penguins clinging to a slim 1-0 lead.
This had been a weird series through two games, from the disallowed goals to Pekka Rinne's uncharacteristically shaky play to Pittsburgh stealing Game 1 despite a comically long shooting drought. But Game 3 turned into a pretty straightforward pummeling. Roman Josi's power-play goal 5:51 into the second period evened the game at one goal apiece, and Frederick Gaudreau scored 42 seconds later to give Nashville the lead and ignite the crowd even further.
Predators fans have waited the franchise's entire history for this moment, and the team didn't let them down, increasing that lead three more times before the final buzzer sounded: a James Neal bank shot late in the second period, a third-period Craig Smith breakaway following a Pittsburgh turnover and a Mattias Ekholm power-play goal that closed out the scoring at 5-1.
The Predators lost Game 1 despite playing well enough to win, and in Game 2 were buried by three disastrous minutes. In other words, the Preds were hardly embarrassing themselves against the defending champs, but they badly needed a win in Game 3 to get back into the series. The win turned out to be an especially satisfying one for the home fans: not just an opportunity to celebrate and keep the party going all night, but a decisive victory that proves Nashville can do more than merely hang with the defending champions. (One example: The Predators held Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a shot on goal in Game 3.)
Nashville entered the game with something of a goalie controversy, as Peter Laviolette avoided committing to Rinne following Game 2. But the Predators' goalie was better in Game 3, and on Saturday night it was Pittsburgh with a goaltending decision to make, as Pens coach Mike Sullivan opted not to pull Matt Murray in favor of Marc-Andre Fleury, even as Nashville pulled away. Preds fans surely didn't mind: It just gave them more opportunities to tell Murray that that it was all his fault, as they're wont to do.
From "Let's go Preds!" to "It's all your fault!"- Ryan Gilbert (@RGilbertSOP) June 4, 2017
The Nashville crowd is incredible. pic.twitter.com/tYoB9qjocf
P.K. Subban, who'd like you to know his breath smells great, thank you very much, had guaranteed a win in Game 3, and his team delivered. After the game, he offered a different kind of prediction: "You thought it was loud today? It'll be even louder in Game 4."