While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.