Inside Legends Corner, a former and possibly still current Tim McGraw impersonator named Buck McCoy (no relation!) was pandering to the people standing around in team colors — some red, mostly gold — by playing a few licks of "O Canada." Outside, a life-size plastic Elvis stood unmoving while a real-live Elvis impersonator milled around.
There were a few hours until puck drop of Game 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals between the Predators and the Detroit Red Wings, and the combination of hockey-sweater-wearing hordes on Broadway and the twang of country music's patron city registered an initial weird disconnect, like seeing fanny-pack-wearing tourists toddling through quaint Dutch villages on the "it's a small world" ride at Disney World.
Everyone I met was unfailingly enthusiastic, even before I arrived. I tweeted that I was going to be in Nashville and received three e-mails from various locals, two of which were titled "Nashvegas" and one "Smashville!" I've never been to Las Vegas, but when I got to the Nashville airport and waited in the taxi line behind a gaggle of gals wearing boots and sunglasses who were in town for a bachelorette party (and later, when I saw another bride-to-be in a veil and cowboy hat canoodling with some dude in a Preds jersey), I understood just what it meant.
I know you're not supposed to talk about cab drivers unless your name is Thomas Friedman, but the guy who picked me up after the bachelorettes sorted out their transportation didn't even ask where I was going before he sighed dramatically and said he hoped the day would go by quickly so he could go home and watch some hockey.
I took his vital signs. He felt the game became more fan friendly when the red line was removed; enjoys the shootouts (hmm); and was not a fan of "the old clutch and grab." He had strong opinions about the time the Predators were almost moved to Hamilton, Ontario, and they involved the threat of burning someone, "and not in effigy." I told him I was looking forward to seeing a game in Nashville. "A lotta coaches are saying we got the rowdiest barn in the league," he said. He explained that the team "went up there and spanked those Red Things."
He said it's stupid for people to act surprised that the Predators were about to knock the Red Things out of the playoffs, noting that the Predators were the higher seed.
"We don't get a hundred and something points in the regular season just because Faith Hill lives in Nashville!" he yelled.
The Predators are a team in all sorts of transition. Once a budget franchise, they recently found owners willing to declare that they'd spend the money necessary to attract and retain free agents. On the ice, they're trying to go from a perfectly respectable team to a team that commands your respect. In the process, the Predators are resisting the derisive label of a "nontraditional market" in Nashville and instead trying to forge a hockey culture of their own. Even the league has taken notice, with Gary Bettman saying that an All-Star game is likely in the team's, and the city's, future.
Here are two things that are wonderful, in no particular order: (1) live music, and (2) hockey.
And so, despite the cognitive dissonance of hockey amid the honky-tonks, it's impossible to argue with Nashville. After a while it just makes so much sense: a good hockey team, a nice rink, good weather, live music wherever you go. Before games you can stand around on the plaza outside the rink drinking beer and listening to music. (You can also pay a modest sum to get three whacks with a sledgehammer on a car painted with the Detroit logo.) A live band plays inside the rink. The Country Music Hall of Fame is right next door. When the Predators score a goal, "I Like It, I Love It," blasts from the PA system, and you agree with both statements.
The song was played twice on Friday night, the first time 16:10 into the first period, when Alexander Radulov netted a goal with an assist from David Legwand. The Red Wings tied the game midway through the second, but it was Legwand who scored the go-ahead goal 13 seconds into the third period. It was assisted by Radulov and Gabriel Bourque, which felt fitting: Legwand is one of the franchise's elder statesmen, for lack of a better word, while Radulov finally rejoined the team after a saga that had him playing in Russia for years, one of numerous moves the Predators have made to move toward being contenders. And Bourque has been one of the team's most productive players this postseason, scoring twice in Game 1 and again in Game 4.
As the minutes ticked down and the Predators kept the Red Wings from generating the offensive firepower they're capable of, the gold-shirted fans in the arena howled. (This is a population that knows how to use their vocal chords on command.) But in the Predators' locker room afterward, things were quiet, not raucous. The team knows that they have bigger goals than just getting past a playoff round. The most outward show of excitement had come from GM David Poile, who, normally stoic, stepped off an elevator and pumped both his fists in the air, Rocky style.
But even that was a quiet moment, without much hooting and hollering. There was plenty of that going on at the now-packed bars just outside Bridgestone Arena on Broadway.
As for the playoff action over the weekend, here are some roundups of the series that are won and done:
I think I've covered this one enough above, but a few extra notes: A great number of NHL goaltenders don't speak to the media after morning skates on the day of games, for reasons that everyone seems to mutually understand. Which is why I was surprised to go to Nashville's skate and see Pekka Rinne holding court with reporters afterward. One asked him about his willingness to chat, noting that other goalies aren't so gregarious on game days. Rinne laughed and said everyone was different and he didn't mind. He seemed just as relaxed during the series, posting a .944 save percentage. Several Red Wings players spoke about how they consciously had to think about keeping the puck away from his glove side, where he "catches everything, even on the ice." The Predators winning in five is good for Rinne, who played more than 70 games in the regular season and will benefit from the rest.
On the Red Wings side, Mike Babcock's postgame press conference was interesting for those wondering whether Detroit will be using its salary cap space this offseason. Babcock drew attention to the fact that the Predators have "three franchise players" (Pekka Rinne, Ryan Suter, and Shea Weber) and that the Red Wings simply couldn't match. "When you go through and look at our group, as a group of forwards I didn't think we had enough up front and it showed in our scoring," he said. With the Red Wings rumored to have their eye on Nashville's Suter as well as New Jersey's Zach Parise, perhaps he was trying to request the start of open offseason.
After losing the opening game of their series with the San Jose Sharks in double overtime, the St. Louis Blues didn't panic or unravel or freeze or suddenly give up lots of goals, as many assumed that a team with their limited playoff experience might do. Instead, they coolly regrouped and won the next four games, closing the Sharks out on Saturday night in front of a rapturous St. Louis crowd. It was the first time the Blues advanced to the second round of the playoffs since the 2001-02 season. "When we scored the second goal, the joy and explosion that happened in this building was unbelievable," said coach Ken Hitchcock following the win. "It was 50 percent joy, in my opinion, and 50 percent relief."
For the Sharks, the early exit was a crushing — if not entirely unforeseen — manner in which to end a season that had begun with Stanley Cup aspirations. Expect some offseason adjustments to the team, quite possibly including the replacement of head coach Todd McLellan. After two years of defeats in the Western Conference finals and now a first-round exit, the Sharks may be seeing their window of opportunity close.
There were two overtime goals on Sunday: The first allowed a team (the Bruins) to remain alive and kicking for one more game, while the second, by the Los Angeles Kings, delivered a death blow. Jarret Stoll's goal 4:27 into the extra session gave the Kings the 2-1 victory over the no. 1 seed (and Presidents' Trophy–winning) Vancouver Canucks, who were described as sitting in "stunned silence" in the locker room following the game. As with the Sharks, the Canucks' first-round exit is expected to bring about some upheaval (or, in the doomsday parlance of the article I just linked to, a "summer of turmoil"). If Alain Vigneault is let go, expect Montreal Canadiens operatives to immediately emerge and whisk him away like he's one of the kids who found the winning ticket in Willy Wonka. Unfortunately for Vancouver fans, the most unavoidable topic these next few months will be the team's situation in net, after Cory Schneider got the start in three of the five playoff games. Roberto Luongo has shot up to the top slot on CapGeek.com's "Most Popular Players" list, meaning many armchair GMs — and actual GMs too, probably, just for kicks — are testing out just how crippling his contract actually is.
As for the Kings, it was another big performance from Jonathan Quick, who stopped 164 of 172 shots over the course of the series. The win marked the first time since the 2000-01 season that the team has advanced to the second round. (That year they lost in seven games to the Avalanche.) "Our goalie — nothing new," said Anze Kopitar. "He kept us in it." L.A. will face the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference semifinals, and if the first round is any indication it will be a hard-hitting series that showcases the two teams' impressive netminders.
What even needs to be said? We're all going to miss you, this series. You were an absolute shit show, and I kind of suspect you were on something, but you were totally charming in an unpredictable "can't wait to see what you'll do next!" kind of way. I thought maybe you would have stuck around a little bit longer, as it sure won't be the same without your familiar lurching around with no pants on singing "The Streets of Philadelphia" in falsetto. But I understand why, for your sake, it was time to move on. Thanks for everything, and keep in touch, will you?
(Oh, here's what actually does need to be said: Claude Giroux is the Ryan Gosling of hockey; it's almost impossible to dislike him. He's disarming, but he's also good. He's nonthreatening, but he can also stomp your head in an elevator. I'm not sure what the Ryan Gosling equivalent of his Day-Glo orange beard is, but I'll come up with something. Ryan Gosling saves annoying ladies from being hit by cabs. Claude Giroux tells his coach he'd like to play the first shift, please, so he can send a message; then he tells his teammates to watch this; then he levels Sidney Crosby; then he creates his own scoring chance; then he scores, and it's only 32 seconds into the game. A real human being, and a real hero )
And now let's playoff power rank our remaining active series, from the ones I'm over to the ones I never want to be over:
Obviously I'm ranking this one the lowest of the four still-active series out of total despair. Why even try to hide it? New York travels to Ottawa tonight for Game 6 with the Senators leading 3-2, and face an elimination that certainly wasn't the outcome that anyone predicted when the Rangers jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Game 1. But the Senators adjusted their strategy and since then have essentially beaten the Rangers at their own game. The Senators have been physical and swarmy, they've had some sweet shots, and most of all, they've been incredibly tough in net: Craig Anderson and Henrik Lundqvist have nearly identical statistics.
What's notable about this series is how thoroughly so many Rangers fans have preemptively given up — check out the comment section here to see what I mean — to the point where I had to double-check yesterday to make sure the team wasn't actually down 3-1 in the series. To the Rangers' credit, all year long they've won the games they had to. During the final stretch of regular season play, for example, they held off a surging Pittsburgh team to maintain the no. 1 seed. (Now the Penguins are out and the Rangers find themselves close to squandering the top spot.) Game 6 will mark the return of the Senators' Daniel Alfredsson and the Rangers' Carl Hagelin, both of whom have been out since Hagelin concussed Alfredsson with an elbow in Game 2. (He was suspended for three games.) It is not yet known whether the Rangers' Brian Boyle will be in the lineup.1
Ranking this one a step higher than N.Y.-Ottawa for several reasons:
A. I just feel like it's been the whipping boy of the first round, and that worries me from a fear-the-hockey-gods perspective — like, what if the karmic retribution turns out to be a Phoenix-Florida Stanley Cup finals? The resulting jokes would be on the exact same level of annoying as how every time there's a huge snow storm people are all "Well, so much for global warming!"
B. For all the aforementioned dismissal of the series, the ratings have been pretty good!
C. It's just kind of notable that Marty Brodeur got tripped up by the very rule put in place to stifle him.
D. Game 6 is pivotal not just for the Devils, but also for their captain Zach Parise, who becomes a free agent after this season. Parise has said the right things with respect to his contract situation, but the sense remains that a first-round exit would not exactly push the two sides lovingly toward one another. At issue will be: Can the Devils succeed with their core group? (And, more broadly, can they afford to?) What is the team's long-term plan in net? Do the Devils want to pay Parise the amount that he will almost certainly be able to command on the open market? Given a team like Detroit's cap space, its disappointing early ouster, and the comments from Mike Babcock that suggest he's unhappy with his depth at forward, you can expect that Parise will want to test the free-agent waters there among other places.
E. Your feel-good goofiness of the day: Scott Mellanby's Twitter account. (Quick background for the uninitiated: The plastic rats that Florida Panthers fans throw on the ice in celebration date back to when Mellanby saw a rat in the locker room in 1995, batted it away with his stick, and went on to score two goals [a "rat trick"] that night. It was also apparently the Year of the Rat and the Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup finals that season. Spooky!) Anyway, Mellanby, who is now an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, recently tweeted: "Thx for all the tweets about the rats flying again in FLA. Yes it brings a smile to my face. Have to be remembered for something i guess." That's so heartbreaking it's beautiful.2 UPDATE: Aw, shucks. To the black market we go!
The Coyotes and Blackhawks have played five games thus far in their first-round series, and all five have gone into overtime. In the most recent contest, Phoenix squandered a third-period lead (again) and were made to pay for it by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who captainclutchcamealiveheartcouragerosetotheoccasion'd the puck with a quickness into the back of the net.
While the Rangers, who are down 3-2, feel a lot like they're dead in the water, the Blackhawks, who are in the same position, seem to possess much more swagger. (That they'll play Game 6 at home doesn't hurt.) Perhaps, given the number of times the Blackhawks have already come back to tie games and force them to overtime, the sense is that they can do the same thing with the whole series.
A Chicago comeback is something you'd have to think NHL executives and the league's sponsors are watching relatively closely: With a number of the league's bigger-market (and more marketable) franchises like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Vancouver having bit the dust early, and New York and Boston potentially being knocked off too, it's starting to seem like one of Those Years when the teams considered smaller market or farther flung are the ones hanging around at the end. Whether this will be a good thing or bad thing remains to be seen, although Steve Lepore and Greg Wyshynski have some interesting takes.
If Flyers-Penguins was a cacophonous wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am of a series, the equivalent of what goes on inside a bag of microwave popcorn, then Bruins-Capitals has been more like a Crock-Pot set to simmer. We arrive at Game 7 on a slow burn, with each game having been just a little bit better than the last. Game 6 did not disappoint: Tyler Seguin's overtime goal was a great one, but if the enduring image of this series is Zdeno Chara with blood pouring menacingly down the bridge of his nose, I'm fine with that.
From an experience and home-ice standpoint, the Bruins ought to have the edge here — they'll be playing in Boston, in a Game 7 environment they're intimately familiar with after last season, and with a proven goaltender and not a young prospect. But something about the Caps has been bizarro all season. Instead of winning the Presidents' Trophy, they barely made the playoffs. Instead of continuing to struggle against Boston, they've been essentially neck-and-neck. Every year they go out early in the playoffs. Maybe this year will be the exception.
At any rate: All Game 7s are toss-ups by definition, but this one feels particularly close: according to Elias, the Boston-Washington series is the first in NHL postseason history in which each of the first six games were decided by a goal. If this one doesn't go into at least triple overtime, I'll feel incredibly cheated.
In a press conference after Game 5, John Tortorella called Boyle concussed and argued that a hit he'd taken from Chris Neil was as dangerous as the one Raffi Torres recently got a 25-game suspension for. Neil was not disciplined for the hit.
Also a must-read is Mellanby's response to one overeager St. Louis fan and also his recollection of his first NHL shift under Mike Keenan: "Fun watching Jaden Schwartz play first game. I remember in 86 a young guy in same boat. My night wasn't as good. Keenan kicked me in back before I got my first NHL shift. Only got 2 shifts. He didn't like the way I held stick on bench with blade up. Lol. Times have changed eh!!"