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.

 

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.