NAshVILLE – Between 70,000 people filling nearby Nissan Stadium to watch Darius Rucker, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley bring the weeklong CMA Fest to a climax, the estimated 50,000 sandwiched onto Lower Broadway for numerous watch parties and the 17,000 mostly Predators fans praying the Stanley Cup doesn’t emerge from its big, black trunk hidden in the bowels of Bridgestone Arena, Nashville will be the place to be Sunday.
Amid the traffic jams, gridlock, live music and beer guzzling, a huge hockey game will be played. The Predators hope to rebound from a horribly played Game 5, force a Game 7 and keep the Pittsburgh Penguins from parading with the Cup inside their barn.
History’s on Pittsburgh’s side. All four of the Penguins’ previous Cup championships came on enemy ice.
“The stakes are higher,” Predators center Colton Sissons said. “You never know when you’ll get another chance to play for the Stanley Cup.”
The sea of humanity in downtown Nashville will be at an all-time high. Sunday is the culmination of a busy week that’s included scores of bands playing on stages on closed-down city streets and such artists and bands as Rascal Flatts, Eric Church, Lady Antebellum, Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton playing at the Titans’ stadium. With Vince Gill and Dierks Bentley playing a role, Luke Bryan will open the television broadcast Sunday with a special performance from the rooftop of the renowned Tootsie’s.
But as Preds coach Peter Laviolette said Saturday, as dominant as Nashville has been on home ice during this postseason (9-1, 9-0 in games ending in regulation), the Preds can’t rely on the fans providing the energy. The Preds have to give them something to cheer about by getting their game intact after playing slow and sloppy in Game 5.
“I know our guys don’t sit in there and wonder how we’re going to do this,” Laviolette said. “I think we’re an extremely confident group. Inside the room, it’s positive.”
It has been a strange series, one in which every game has been won by the home team. Since Game 1, there have been four blowouts, highlighted by Pittsburgh’s 6-0 rout in Game 5. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin seem intent on delivering the Penguins the third Cup in their era, something even Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr didn’t achieve.
James Neal and Roman Josi said it’s imperative the Predators be physical with them.
The series has taken a nasty turn at times, with the teams combining for 90 penalty minutes Thursday. The best, borderline juvenile story line of the series has been the ongoing battles between Crosby and P.K. Subban.
It started in Game 3 when after converging in the final seconds, Subban said Crosby accused him of bad breath.
“I really don’t understand why because I used Listerine before the game,” Subban said.
Crosby denied the comment the next day, and audio for Showtime’s All Access show confirmed Crosby and Subban screamed a bunch of four-letter words at each other but nothing about Subban’s breath.
Whether it was planned in advance or not, Subban has since struck a partnership with Listerine. The company delivered several bottles of cool mint mouthwash to Subban, and he tweeted out, “#Sponsored: Game prep @Listerine #PKApproved,” before Game 4.
Crosby and Subban had a couple of run-ins during Game 4, then in Game 5 got into a wrestling match. Subban locked both arms around one of Crosby’s ankles. Crosby responded by continually pushing Subban’s head into the ice.
Crosby accused Subban of doing “some UFC move” on his foot. Subban said it was nothing personal, that it was “just hockey.”
It was the highlight of game that included several skirmishes and even some scraps. Predators captain Mike Fisher says tempers have flared because of the lopsided games.
“I don’t think they like us nor do we like them. That’s playoff hockey,” Fisher said.
The Predators, already without key forwards Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala, could be without top-pair defenseman Ryan Ellis, who left Game 5 with an undisclosed injury. With Pittsburgh not wanting to leave fate to a Game 7, the Predators will need a much better performance from goalie Pekka Rinne, yanked for the second time in three road games in this series Thursday. However, at home in the playoffs, Rinne is 9-1 with a 1.44 goals-against average and .949 save percentage. He has allowed two or fewer goals eight times.
For the Penguins, there will be plenty of motivation for the Minnesotans.
Jake Guentzel hopes to at least match Dino Ciccarelli’s all-time rookie record with his 14th goal, and Matt Cullen could be a Cup away from retirement. He’ll have 14 family members at the game, including his wife, three sons, parents and three siblings.
“We have to put last game behind us. There’s a lot of excitement for [Sunday],” Fisher said.
“We’ve got an opportunity here at home in front of our fans where we love playing to do something special. Our motivation is the Cup. We want to win. That’s what we’re hungry for.”