Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray (30) reacts following the goal of Nashville Predators center Calle Jarnkrok (19) during the first period at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on January 31, 2017. File photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo
In 2007, the Nashville Predators almost left town. Canadian businessman James Balsillie entered into a tentative agreement with then-owner Craig Leopold to buy the team and move it to Hamilton, Ontario.
Leopold had lost money every year of the team's existence. Canadian columnists were saying that Nashville simply wasn't a market that could support the NHL. It appeared that Nashville was going to join the likes of Quebec, Kansas City, Hartford and Cleveland as markets that had the NHL and lost it.
Ten years later, Nashville not only still has hockey, but is now being held up as the place where you want to see a game. The Predators' run to their first Stanley Cup Final has not only galvanized an entire city and state, but has also proven the hot takes of the past to be as fruitless as an odd-man rush on Pekka Rinne.
"Nashville has really taken on a life of its own," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Monday night after a 6-3 win over Anaheim clinched the Western Conference title. "I think our fans who have been so supportive for so many years ... the energy they bring into the building, it goes to a level that I'm not sure goes anywhere else in the National Hockey League."
Dating to last spring's playoffs, Nashville is 11-1 in its last 12 home playoff games. They have closed out their first three series at Bridgestone Arena. Players have noted before playoff games that they can hear the din of the crowd and that it takes their play up another level.
It certainly appeared to be the case in the last eight minutes Monday night. Immediately after killing a delay-of-game minor on Roman Josi, the Predators snapped a 3-3 tie with Colton Sissons' third goal of the night, then iced the game with two empty-netters in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
"After we scored to make it 5-3, I had to hop on the ice," Predators forward Austin Watson said. "You couldn't hear what anyone was saying."
That's a far cry from a decade ago, when the building almost went quiet for good.
To make a deep run in the playoffs, a team has to have more than one or two dominant lines and a dominant goalie. Nashville has epitomized that over the last six weeks.
The Predators have tied an NHL record this postseason by using 18 forwards. All of them have contributed in some way. The final two games of the conference finals showcased the organization's depth and commitment to player development.
Of the nine goals scored in those games, eight came off the sticks of players drafted and developed by Nashville. Sissons and Watson each potted three while Colin Wilson and Pontus Aberg also lit the lamp.
Following Monday night's win, Laviolette paid tribute to the coaching staff at the team's AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.
"Not only are they a successful team in the minors, but every time they come up here, they're better hockey players," he said. "It's a credit to the development that Nashville puts into the young players."
The only marker in the last two games against Anaheim not scored by a player drafted by the Predators came from Filip Forsberg. He was acquired from Washington at the trading deadline in April 2013 for Martin Erat, and has blossomed into a 30-goal scorer in his age 21 and 22 seasons.
After the initial shock of being traded in the offseason from the Montreal Canadiens, the only franchise he had ever known, wore off, defenseman P.K. Subban realized he had a chance to make a long playoff run with Nashville.
Following the win over Anaheim on Monday, Subban lauded Laviolette and general manager David Poile for their work in building the team, and in welcoming him to Nashville shortly after they acquired him from Montreal on June 29 for veteran defenseman Shea Weber.
"I said that when I got here, I thought we had a tremendous opportunity to win a Stanley Cup," Subban said. "I got some flak for it, but what solidified it for me was when I talked with David Poile and (Laviolette). They just embraced me, and wanted me to do my job."
Subban's playoff stats haven't been spectacular, as he has two goals and eight assists in 16 games. But he's a plus-six, and has teamed with defense partner Mattias Ekholm to shut down opponents' top lines consistently. They're sure to see a lot of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in the final.