As the old cliché goes, then there were two. The 2017 Stanley Cup will be decided by the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. Just like we all thought. The Pens are looking to become the first team to repeat since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Nashville is looking to validate its place as a hockey city with the franchise’s first piece of hardware.
The story lines surrounding this Final almost write themselves.
The Pens’ thrilling 2OT winner in Game 7 Thursday night gives them a chance to get that elusive repeat title. The story with the Pens is simple: they can repeat as champs, and thus challenge the Hawks as best team of this era with three Cups.
But the Predators’ story is a little more complex. Nashville has suddenly become the darlings of the league since sweeping the Hawks in the first round. They’re the third eight seed to reach the Cup Final since 2006, which shows the parity in this league, and just how bad of a draw the Blackhawks got in the first round (not the reason they lost, but still).
I know some people who have lived and worked in Nashville going years back. As often as I would make fun of the Preds, their petty “Keep the red out” campaigns, and postseason shortcomings, those people would always promise me that the core fans were there, were hooked, and were growing. All the team needed was an identity, and most importantly a winner. Now they have both of those things, and everyone cannot stop talking about how unique and amazing the hockey atmosphere in Nashville is. The fact that my friend who has never watched or loved hockey a day in his life can go to Game 6 in Nashville and be immediately hooked on the sport is a testament to what the Preds have created.
Now their rabid, yellow-clad fan base will be showcased for the entire league to see. The Bridgestone Arena crowd has been described to be like a frenzied college football crowd, which makes sense given Nashville’s southern geographic location (S-E-C! S-E-C!). The celebrity country singers, the catfish, the chants, the car smashing, Broadway, all of it has helped create an atmosphere so different from any other in the league. The Preds have carved their niche as the South’s team, and their rise has gone hand-in-hand with Nashville’s boom as a city.
What we are currently seeing happen in Nashville is so good for the game of hockey. We, who don’t fit the description, all love to moan about southern markets not being able to support their teams, and sometimes rightly so. Half-empty buildings in Arizona, Carolina, Florida, Anaheim, and Dallas are annoying and disappointing to see.
But here we have a Nashville franchise that was on life support less than a decade ago. Now they are flourishing on solid ground with a chance to win their first Stanley Cup. And not just win a Cup, but grab a hold of Nashville as a Preds hockey town moving forward. Win or lose, they’ve proven that hockey in Tennessee wasn’t such a crazy idea, it just needed time and patience. Now, the NHL possibly has their model southern franchise.
On the ice, this was definitely the most desirable matchup for the league and the fans. No offense to Ottawa, whose courageous postseason run was something to be admired, but Pittsburgh-Nashville is just a sexier Cup Final. Two teams predicated on speed, with marketable stars, in bold colors flying up and down the ice across your TV screen.
These playoffs have been a war of attrition. The Preds will be without Ryan Johansen for thr series. The Pens have had to overcome losing Letang for the postseason, Crosby’s concussions, and then suffering injuries to Schultz, Rust and others. Through all of that, and a goalie change, Pittsburgh’s championship pedigree has pushed them over the edge.
If there’s one thing I think about going into this series it’s that the Pens just know how to get the job done this time of year. It’s cliché, and we probably put too much stock in it, but I think those experiences still matter. This is the Preds’ first Cup rodeo, who knows how those guys will respond. Pekka Rinne has been great for Nashville, but is this where he runs out of gas? Who knows, but if he starts slipping the Pens are going to punish him, badly. Will Pittsburgh have to play musical goalies again? Can they stay healthy-ish?
I mentioned it above, but the Pens also have some legacy stuff to play for here. To be the first back-to-back Cup winners in the cap era, and first since ’97-’98 would be a major accomplishment. Something that the Hawks were never able to do (curses, 2014). Pittsburgh has a chance to match Chicago’s three Cups of this era, which many have been lamenting as the Hawks “losing their era.” At first glance, it would be disappointing, I guess. But the Hawks window isn’t closed yet, they have a chance to reload like the Pens did after 2014, and nothing is taking those banners down or those memories away. So relax, Hawks fans.
I think this could be one of the most exciting Cup Finals we’ve seen in the past few years. The history at stake, the pageantry in Nashville, all of it will be a great showcase for the game. I’m excited to see the ratings, too. Nashville is sure to be hooked, but how hooked outside of the arena? We’ll see. The Pens smashed their NBC viewership numbers during Thursday night’s Game 7, even better than their Cup Finals. All good things from the league’s standpoint.
It’s sure to be a wild ride. Give me the Preds in 6, because why not.