Predators postseason run has turned Music City into Smashville

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The place known as Smashville is ready for its close-up.

The Nashville Predators have reached their first Western Conference final in franchise history and that has spread hockey fever far beyond their arena and the team’s loyal legion of fans. Stars from Carrie Underwood to Lady Antebellum are lining up to sing the national anthem and the likes of John Hiatt to Lee Greenwood are singing with the house band during intermissions.

Not only do Predators’ flags and banners drape Nashville’s famous honkytonks, they now hang from front porches in the suburbs of Music City.

“You can’t drive through a neighborhood without seeing a flag,” Predators president Sean Henry said. “So it’s fun to tap into a passion that this community has for sports, and right now it’s all about the Nashville Predators.”

College football may be king in the South and NASCAR remains popular, but hockey certainly has a foothold. It’s not unusual anymore for a Southern team to be in the mix for a Stanley Cup championship – this just happens to be the first time that Nashville has made it this far.

The Predators are on their best run postseason yet and the longest by either of Nashville’s two major league franchises in 14 years. Shoot, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans haven’t reached the playoffs since 2008 and last reached the AFC championship in 2003.

That’s why most TVs were tuned to hockey at a local barbecue joint after the Predators ousted St. Louis in six games . People wanted to watch Nashville’s next opponent, either Anaheim or Edmonton.

Nashville native and PGA golfer Brandt Snedeker said he’s never seen so much yellow walking around downtown before Game 4 against the Blues. Everyone in his child’s class at school has Predators’ gear, too.

“To feel the energy on the ice was unlike anything I’ve felt in sports before,” said Snedeker, who brought the Ryder Cup with him to the game. “It was such a dynamic, electric atmosphere to see all that energy in one place pulling for one team and doing something only Nashville would do in the right way … it was awesome to watch.”

The Titans have been very supportive. Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray stirred up fans waving a rally flag for one game, while coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson regularly wear Predators’ gear. During a rain delay, the Triple-A Nashville Sounds showed the Predators’ playoff game a few blocks away on their guitar-shaped video board. The Vanderbilt Commodores watched the end of Sunday’s clincher on their own video board after their own game.

Former Bills and Jets coach Rex Ryan is a season-ticket holder who attended playoff games in St. Louis and Nashville. Former Titans coach Jeff Fisher also was at a recent playoff game.

“People just want to be with this team, and we just love this fan base,” Henry said.

The Predators also are benefiting from youth hockey programs in this non-traditional market, and now former skaters are buying their own tickets. They’ve now sold out 55 consecutive games, including every luxury suite this season.

About 70 percent of the Predators’ tickets are sold outside the city’s home county, with up to 20 percent of those coming from outside of Tennessee.

Matt Clark, a 30-year-old human resources manager, drives down from Louisville, Kentucky, for two to three games per month for the past three years. He grew up playing hockey in Roanoke, Virginia, where his favorite ECHL player was Terence Tootoo whose brother, Jordin, played for Nashville. Clark said the Chicago and Detroit jerseys he used to see in the stands are gone now, replaced by Predator gold.

“I’ve been to a lot of hockey stadiums, and it’s definitely up there at the top,” Clark said. “Every time I go the atmosphere’s pretty electric. Definitely one of my favorite things about it is during the TV timeouts when everybody stands and cheers at the top of their lungs to encourage the team.”

Fans make Bridgestone Arena so loud that a radio engineer measured the decibel level at 121.7 late in Nashville’s last home game. The NHL may have bigger buildings than Nashville, whose official capacity is 17,113. The Predators insist none is louder.

“They’re on their feet the entire game,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “You don’t see that at a lot of hockey games. It almost feels like a college football game of some kind.”

Tapping Underwood for the national anthem this postseason was pretty easy since her husband, Mike Fisher, is team captain. Who’s singing the anthem now is a closely guarded secret with artists offering to help out as the good times roll in Smashville.

“It’s great to see that the whole hockey world realizes how big of a hockey city this is,” defenseman Roman Josi said.

 

Hextall’s patience, Elliott’s goaltending playing big roles in Flyers’ turnaround

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PHILADELPHIA — Step inside the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room, look to your right and you’ll notice above a clock on the wall is a sign that reads, “The Star Of The Team Is The Team Itself.” That message has been the thread through an interesting month for the team as they experienced the dregs of a 10-game losing streak before flipping the script and winning six straight.

That sixth win came Saturday night during a 2-1 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars making the Flyers the third team in NHL history (1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2005 San Jose Sharks) to reel off six victories in a row after a 10-game winless streak.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans were chanting for general manager Ron Hextall to fire the head coach and there was talk of shipping bodies out of town to shake things up. Those requests, however, were not in Hextall’s plans. The GM defended his team, defended his coach and was not going to make moves for the sake of change. That show of belief was well-received by his players.

“It means a lot. Obviously, Hexy has faith in us. He’s a very patient man, the coaching staff as well,” said forward Wayne Simmonds.

The front office wasn’t going to tear things apart and the players weren’t going to come unglued, even with the pressure of the losing streak growing with each defeat. They can look back now and see that as a takeaway from that experience.

“The most positive thing [was] we didn’t separate, we stuck together as a team and that’s why we’re winning games right now,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said.

The play of the five skaters on the ice has meshed well with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s been spectacular during this stretch. During this winning streak, he’s been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week and has posted a .952 even strength save percentage.

“Our team has confidence in him. That’s a real position of strength for our bench, for the guys that are out on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just the things that you see on a nightly basis on game nights. He does such a real good job on a daily basis of approaching his day of work and that’s something that guys can feed off. They know he does the work. He’s prepared and I think that gives everyone a level of confidence coming into the game.”

It’s been a two-way effort for the Flyers during the streak. They haven’t allowed more than two goals a game and just grinded out a pair of 2-1 victories.. After averaging only two goals scored per game during that 10-game slide, which included being shutout three times, the offense has pumped in 3.5 goals per night. The power play is also cooking at 27.3 percent and their team shooting percentage is moving in the right direction going from 6.45 percent during their November slide to 9.23.

Adding to Provorov’s positive note about what came from the losing streak was also their standing in the Metropolitan Division. You’d think a team that did as poor as they did in November would see themselves with a major hole to dig out of by Christmas, but picking up five loser points helped keep the Flyers a bit above water. And now after picking up 12 out of a possible 12 points, they currently reside four points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in the division.

Hakstol doesn’t care if you want to call it confidence or swagger, but the Flyers are carrying themselves in that manor. Winning cures all, right? A 10-game streak could have really done damage to the team’s psyche and affected them going forward, but as Hextall said last month, they believed — despite the losses piling up — they weren’t playing bad hockey. It was just a matter of time before they started digging up again.

“You can be playing really well, but when you’re going good you just have that mentality that you’re not going to take less than finding a way to win a game. I can tell you, when you’re on the other end of close losses, tight losses, it starts to wear at you,” said Hakstol.

“But you have a couple of good things happen, along with working hard, paying attention to detail and really sticking together, you get that little injection of adrenaline that helps push you in the right direction.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Job of the Hutton

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Players of the Night

  • Carter Hutton has quietly been playing well when used (sparingly) by the St. Louis Blues, but he stepped into the spotlight on Saturday, guiding his team to a 2-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

The high-powered Jets fired 48 shots on goal in this one, yet none beat Hutton, who nabbed the ninth shutout of his solid career. The 31-year-old bumped his save percentage up to a whopping .949 so far in 2017-18. He set a Blues record in doing so.

  • On Friday, Jack Eichel collected a hat trick and an assist in a losing effort. Gabriel Landeskog upped the ante one night later – literally – by scoring three goals and two assists in a game his Avalanche managed to lose anyway.

As much attention as Nathan MacKinnon is grabbing (rightfully, as he added two goals to his impressive season so far), this marks the second hat trick of the season for Landeskog. Not bad with it still being 2017, and all.

This was a pretty nasty game between the Avalanche and Lightning, at least at times.

Some key highlights

Technically, you can spell overtime without Alex Ovechkin

(Ovechkin’s already in select GWG company.)

Shayne Gostisbehere scored both of Philly’s goals, but the antics between Wayne Simmonds and Ben Bishop were the real highlight here:

Speaking of Nathan MacKinnon, this is something else:

Mathew Barzal to Jordan Eberle a combination that torments Darcy Kuemper in overtime and Peter Chiarelli, always:

Finally, Jonathan Gibson flashes the glove in defeat:

Factoids

The Lightning keep piling up different milestones and accomplishments, with Mikhail Sergachev ranking among those today (as Tampa Bay won its seventh in a row):

The cold weather didn’t slow Erik Karlsson down (more on that outdoor game here):

Pekka Rinne‘s really been rattling off some milestones lately.

Scores

Oilers 3, Wild 2
Rangers 3, Bruins 2 (OT)
Blues 2, Jets 0
Islanders 4, Kings 3 (OT)
Hurricanes 2, Blue Jackets 1
Flyers 2, Stars 1 (OT)
Senators 3, Canadiens 0
Capitals 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Penguins 4, Coyotes 2
Lightning 6, Avalanche 5
Predators 2, Flames 0

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fight video: Brouwer makes Watson pay for Hathaway hit

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Austin Watson nodded with recognition after landing a questionable hit on Garnet Hathaway on Saturday, as he understood why Troy Brouwer demanded immediate retribution.

And, as you can see from the video above the headline, Brouwer got that bloody payback after beating Watson in a fight.

Watson (who isn’t that far removed from a two-game suspension) was ejected for his hit. It wasn’t the only nasty moment between the Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames, either, as the toxic exchanges included Anthony Bitetto‘s ugly cross-check on Sam Bennett.

(Video or a GIF of Bitetto’s hit will be added if it becomes available.)

Some other penalties reduced some of the advantage for the Flames, but they ultimately still received serious man-advantage opportunities amid all of the violence, and they weren’t able to convert.

The best news is that Hathaway might end up being OK after a scary-looking check. He returned to the game during the third period.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Should Erik Johnson be suspended for ugly play on Namestnikov?

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Vladislav Namestnikov has been the Mikael Renberg equivalent on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Legion of Doom with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for much of this season, complimenting those two scorers with strong work of his own.

The Lightning were lighting up the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, perhaps frustrating Erik Johnson and others. Whatever the explanation might be, it was a pretty ugly sight when Johnson slashed and then boarded Namestnikov, earning those two penalties plus a game misconduct.

Plenty of people believe that supplemental discipline would be merited for Johnson’s actions. For what it’s worth, “Names” did return to action in the third period. We’ve seen instances where players return only to be hurt anyway, so we’ll see if the nifty winger sees any delayed issues.

Johnson, 29, was suspended for two games by the NHL back in 2014, but has a generally clean history otherwise.

The Lightning ultimately ended up beating the Avalanche 6-5, as Nathan MacKinnon almost led a rally with two power-play goals.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.