After tonight’s game, we will know which team the Nashville Predators will match up against in their first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. However, despite the season-long dominance of the Eastern Conference, the Preds look all but unbeatable right now, regardless of their ultimate opponent.
Nashville was the last team to make the playoffs, the unofficial sixteenth seed. Paired up against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, there were few hockey fans who expected them to pull through, let alone get the sweep. But they did.
Then the Predators squared off against St. Louis, and despite the critical loss of Kevin Fiala, they pulled through – giving St. Louis the Blues.
Just a few days ago, Nashville defeated the Anaheim Ducks in a hard-fought, often dirty series to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as the champions of the Western Conference. Though they suffered further losses in Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher, younger players and depth forwards have stepped up in their stead.
Given what we saw with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season — a decimated team whose largely untested young guns paved the way to their Stanley Cup win in June — it is certainly reasonable, and even likely, to expect that the same thing will happen for the Predators this year. It is a real Cinderella story… if Cinderella had worn cowboy boots rather than glass slippers.
I truly think it is hard for any opponent to beat Nashville right now, and that’s really exciting. This team hails from a so-called nontraditional hockey market, yet they sold out every home game, nearly broke world records for the sound of the crowd, and had thousands of fans pile up in the plaza outside and around Nashville to watch their team succeed. Celebrities, politicians, and other athletes (looking at you, Tennessee Titans) have lined up to perform at games and support the Preds.
Personally, I would love for there to be a Pittsburgh-Nashville final series. Those are my two favorite teams in any sport, and frankly I would be happy with either outcome. It also makes for some great storylines: prodigal son James Neal returns to the city that scorned him; comparisons between rookies; Patric Hornqvist giving his former goalie Pekka Rinne grief in front of the net every game. Also, it would probably be a lot more exciting than anything with the Ottawa Senators in it.
Sorry, Sens, you’re just not very exciting. We all know it.
On the other hand, it would be good for the sport to have a Canadian team meet a southern American team in the Final. The old tradition of Canadian hockey versus the new, showy style the Preds exemplify. This series would also give us a great defensive showdown between PK Subban and Erik Karlsson, two of the best defensemen in the world.
But if this series happens, the Predators will eat the Senators alive. The Preds have shown they have serious offensive talent, ready to explode from any player at any time, and it’s unlikely Ottawa’s largely anonymous defense can keep up with that.
The Preds are also harder hitters than the Sens, who are also a bit battered. While the Sens have a few really gritty guys — Chris Neil, when he’s in; Tommy Wingels; even Dion Phaneuf — everyone in Nashville hits hard and throws their whole body into everything on the ice.
The Predators are also a quick team, so a matchup against the Penguins would provide a more balanced game. Much like when the Penguins faced the Sharks last year, speed is as big of a factor as size, and teams that have both are going to win.
Regardless of who they will face at center ice, I’m just really proud of the Predators for getting here. Their regular season was up and down, but they’ve hardly stumbled in the postseason. Every player on their team, including the “black aces” called up from Milwaukee, has given their all on the ice and will surely continue to through their last series.
Whether they end up against the Penguins or Senators, the Preds will really be the team to watch.