Almost any professional athlete would agree that playing a game at home is the best place to be.
That’s been especially true for the Nashville Predators over the 15 seasons they’ve existed, as the club has often had one of the best home records in the NHL. Starting in earnest during the 2003-2004 season (the first that the team reached the postseason) the advantage given to the Predators when playing in Nashville has become something of a tradition.
This is part three of our new series this month. We’ll be looking at the four main areas that defined the Nashville Predators 2013-2014 season. Every Thursday come here for the next part in the series as we “throwback” to the players, moments and events that defined this past campaign. Read part one on the Predators rookies and part two on Pekka Rinne here.
But something has happened since the Predators first established their dominance at home more than decade ago.
Over the past five or six seasons especially, the teams in Nashville’s division have moved beyond rebuilding efforts and become playoff perennials. Gone are the days when the Predators could count on a Saturday night home drubbing of the St. Louis Blues or Chicago Blackhawks. No longer are the opposition’s fans as scared of taking in a game in Music City as they once were. Now with the promise of an entertaining weekend, country music and maybe even a win, selecting Bridgestone Arena as the location to watch their team on the road has become a much more appealing option for many fans of the Predators rivals.
From this past season, two nights stand out as particularly powerful examples of an opponent having an abnormal amount of support inside the Predators building: March 15 against the Blues and April 12 versus the Blackhawks.
In the first contest–a 4-1 win for St. Louis–thousands of the Blues faithful invaded Nashville and watched as their club added two more points to their then league-leading total.
“This has always been one of the toughest buildings in the West to come to on a Saturday night. To see a lot of Blues sweaters was really gratifying,” St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock said after the game. “I think we have a fierce following.”
“It was amazing! It felt like a home game,” said Blues forward Patrick Berglund. “It was amazing, and after I woke up from my nap I even heard ‘Let’s Go Blues’ from the bars down the street. That’s pretty cool when you’re waking up and going to get ready.”
The man managing the home team’s bench was not overly impressed with his opponent’s results, however. Former Predators head coach Barry Trotz delivered one of the more memorable quotes of the season in a post-game press conference that night:
“Any time a team is doing well in this league, you travel well. When the Blues weren’t doing so good, you never saw any blue shirts out there. They’re the top team in the NHL, and they’re proud of what they’ve built up to this point,” Trotz said. “It’s not any different than the Blackhawks. I never saw any Blackhawks jerseys before, but then they build a good team and everybody wears their jerseys. That’s how pro sports work.”
Frustrated at their performance–a loss that gave St. Louis a five-game season sweep–the Predators and their fans left a location that night that was supposed to give them a boost, but instead provided a venue to bring joy to their rivals.
Less than a month later, however, Nashville would have its revenge.
In the final home game of the 2013-2014 season, the stands in Bridgestone Arena had once again taken on a different hue than normal. Similar to a particular Saturday night game in mid-April, the Predators looked up and saw not the usual collection of gold and navy, but rather the shocking contrast of bright red.
Dozens of No. 19 and No. 88 Blackhawks jerseys clumped all over the Predators home arena, thousands of Chicago fans loudly proclaimed their presence in Nashville for the NHL’s final weekend of the regular season. Memories of what had transpired against another Central Division rival four weeks prior began flooding back.
Even more similarities emerged when the Blackhawks took an early lead in the contest, just like the Blues had 28 days before.
But about that time, Nashville’s offense caught fire. Five third period goals for Nashville quieted Chicago’s traveling contingent and gave the Predators fans present a pleasant send off for the soon-concluding campaign.
“Yeah we knew there was going to be a lot of Blackhawks fans here, it’s something we talked about before the game. It was really nice to send them home disappointed,” Predators forward Matt Cullen said with a smile.
“We took their fans out of the game when it mattered,” Nashville winger Eric Nystrom said. “That was a fun one for our fans, probably not as much for the coaches or even as a player, but that was a great last home game.”
Like his players, who were especially energized after a dramatic home win that felt like a road game, Trotz voiced his pleasure at disappointing a rivals’ supporters.
“We’ve been pretty good on the road, so I didn’t mind all their fans too much. I went for lunch today and all I saw was red all over, I even saw a Blackhawks flag at one point. I thought that would give us some great motivation to let them come downtown and go home sad. That was my goal,” Trotz said.
In their final home contest of the campaign, the Predators discovered the recipe for success when their usual home ice advantage suddenly disappears: think like you’re on the road, but play like it’s any other home game. The lesson learned is an important one for Nashville, as it appears that for the next handful of seasons at least, many (if not all) of the club’s rivals will remain very competitive.
So the next time an opponent has an unusual number of fans supporting it in Nashville, the Predators will be ready and waiting.