NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Sometime after Kevin Fiala's overtime winner ended game three at 12:08 a.m. Tuesday, it dawned on me. There is nothing like Smashville.
From the party in the plaza to the blocks of music-filled honky tonks, the pregame party begins hours before the game. On Monday lower Broadway was buzzing by three o'clock, nearly six hours before puck drop against the Blackhawks. On a weekday!
It's an experience that can't be duplicated at any other NHL venue.
Blackhawks fans are widely considered some of the best and most passionate fans in sports. Standing room tickets to regular season games at the 22,000-seat United Center regularly go for more than $100. But while the UC is packed and loud, it's a crowd that files in just before the national anthem and heads home as soon as the final horn blows.
That doesn't happen in Nashville, where fans often continue the party downtown after a big win, even when, like Monday, it technically ends after the next day has already begun.
Speaking of the national anthem, Jim Cornelison's rendition in Chicago is the best in all of sports, but Nashville is Music City. Whether it's traditional anthem singer Dennis K. Morgan joined by 17,113 fans or seven-time Grammy winner Carrie Underwood's surprise performance in game three, Smashville won't be out done.
While other arenas sit quietly during intermissions, It's not uncommon to see Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels or any other number of stars join the house band between periods at Bridgestone Arena. It is three (or four) hours of non-stop entertainment.
But the best action clearly comes on the ice. In two decades the Predators have gone from an expansion team that many questioned if it could survive in a non-traditional southern market to one of the most consistent teams in the sport.
This is the Preds' 10th playoff appearance in the last 13 years, and with one more win against the Blackhawks they will advance to the NHL's final eight for the fourth time in seven years.
The core of this team is young and talented, and they've shown that by outplaying the Stanley Cup favorites for the first three games of this series. So here's what dawned on me when the 20-year-old Fiala's game-winner nearly blew the roof off of Bridgestone Arena.
This team is ready, the window is just now opening for the Predators to become a true Stanley Cup contender. And one look around the arena at 12:08 a.m. showed that Nashville is very much ready for that success. There hasn't been an empty seat in Bridgestone Arena all season, and nearly every seat is gold.
The Preds have succeeded at "keeping the (Blackhawks') red out", and are now on the verge of keeping the red out of the second round of the playoffs.
And that's the thing, slowly but surely this is becoming a hockey town.
This isn't a "it's cute Nashville likes hockey thing". This is one of the best environments in sports. Period.
And now it appears Smashville has the team to match it.