In an interview during the second intermission of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and Predators, NBA analyst Charles Barkley talked about how much he's been enjoying this year's hockey postseason. He compared the atmosphere in Bridgestone Arena to the Bulls' (and Blackhawks') former home, Chicago Stadium. And then he said that "The NBA playoffs have not been great, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been amazing."
The league couldn't have scripted better ad copy for itself. (If they had, you can be sure they'd have left out the part where Barkley referenced Islanders' John Spano ownership debacle.) But truth be told, these playoffs have been ... fine. There have been some highlights -- Game 7 of the East Finals comes most immediately to mind -- but we've seen better postseasons in recent memory. Even Games 3 and 4 Nashville haven't been especially competitive, with the Predators winning by scores of 5-1 and 4-1, respectively. But the NHL must still be giddy to show off the scene in Nashville to the sports world.
As has been well-documented by this point, the crowds in Nashville have been electric and the city in general has embraced the team and the sport. The Predators franchise is one of the youngest in the league, but it's developed a personality. The arena is fun. The fans are fun. P.K. Subban is so much fun it can drive Mike Milbury nuts. (Subban carrying bottles of Listerine into the arena before Game 4 showed a real commitment to trolling Sidney Crosby.)
Any crowd this time of year will be intense, but this isn't hockey in Montreal or Toronto, or Chicago or New York, or even St. Louis or Los Angeles. It's distinctly Nashville, and this Preds team plays with an energy that only further feeds the crowd. From here on out, the unofficial mascot of the Predators shouldn't be a catfish; it should be a catfish wearing a sparkly hat, eating a stuffed Penguin.
The catfish is ready for its closeup.- SB Nation (@SBNation) June 6, 2017
(�� Frederick Breedon/Getty) pic.twitter.com/58LINv30Zo
In Game 4, the Predators gave the home crowd plenty to cheer for. Pekka Rinne was outstanding just days after some questioned whether he'd even get the start in Game 3. This sequence in particular stood out.
More action-y angle of Pekka Rinne in successful desperation mode pic.twitter.com/EuEpaAZPD9- Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) June 6, 2017
Meanwhile, Frederick Gaudreau -- a rookie with 15 games of experience who doesn't even have a permanent locker stall in the Nashville dressing room -- scored his third goal of the series, including his second game-winner. (Not that anyone knew he'd scored until after a video replay.)
Gaudreau goal pic.twitter.com/0uodIBAGCU- steph (@myregularface) June 6, 2017
And then there was the prettiest play of the night: Mike Fisher's one-handed pass to spring Viktor Arvidsson for the second-period breakaway goal that increased Nashville's lead to 3-1.
The Predators have been the better team for much of this series, but unlike in the games in Pittsburgh, it's now translating into actual victories. They should be especially pleased as the series shifts back to PPG Paints Arena, now that Rinne is once again playing like a world-class goaltender. If the Penguins hadn't stolen Game 1, Nashville could be preparing right now to play for the Cup on Thursday. As it is, the Final has become a best-of-three, and Nashville is guaranteed to host one more game.
The NHL has long promoted individual stars (like Sidney Crosby), and the league also likes to play up dynasties and consistent winners: teams like the Oilers and Islanders of the 1980s and the Blackhawks of the past decade. But the appeal of this Predators team isn't simply the result of a single great player (though they have a thoroughly marketable star in Subban). Rather, it's all the elements of hockey in Nashville put together: Subban and Rinne and their teammates, the taunting crowd chants, the mystery anthem singers and the party outside the arena. It's catfish throwing and bands playing and country music stars cheering like crazy in the stands. And over the past three days, as the Predators have held serve in the series, Nashville has proven that it was ready for its Stanley Cup Final close-up.