NASHVILLE – With Nashville police estimating 50,000 people partying on the streets of downtown Nashville, a lucky 17,000 lively, very loud fans got to flood into Bridgestone Arena on Saturday night and turn that colorful venue into a jolly bash.
Every section of the arena was filled during pregame warmups, which is an oddity. And with both teams prepping, "Let's Go Preds!!!" chants broke out, as did "Pekka! Pekka! Pekka," an ode to the Pekka Rinne, the Predators' lifer goaltender who struggled mightily in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
After giving up an early goal to — who else? — Jake Guentzel, Rinne bounced back during a 27-save performance as the Predators took Game 3 over in the second period and put some doubt in the Pittsburgh Penguins' repeat hopes by cutting their series deficit to 2-1 with a 5-1 steamrolling.
"Pretty cool. That was unbelievable," Rinne said of the pregame serenade from fans. "Collectively, everyone was telling each other we've never seen anything like that. As a player, we're really proud to be part of just having our fans a chance to get recognized and being in the big stage now. It's a good showcase for the city of Nashville and our fans."
As enthusiastic as advertised, the Predators' passionate fan base had the arena vibrating with standing ovations during play and TV timeouts. Catfish, cowboy hats and rally towels hit the ice, Martina McBride sang the national anthem, Hank Williams Jr. waved a towel from the band stage and actress Nicole Kidman highlighted the star-studded crowd by dancing with husband, country music star Keith Urban.
"It was the best atmosphere I've ever played in," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. "Pretty spectacular."
The crowd grew especially vivacious when the Predators rallied in the second period after Guentzel's playoff-leading 13th goal. Roman Josi and Frederick Gaudreau scored 42 seconds apart and James Neal scored with 22.6 seconds left. Josi, one of five NHL defensemen who has recorded at least 40 points in each of the past four seasons — Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith are the others — had points on all three goals.
"He's as consistent a player as there is in the NHL," coach Peter Laviolette said of Josi.
Craig Smith and Mattias Ekholm scored third-period goals as the Predators went on to improve to 8-1 at home in the playoffs and 4-0 in Game 3s, all at Bridgestone Arena.
"We've been outplayed in stretches [of the series]," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "Do we have to be better? Yeah, and we're capable of that."
While Guentzel continues to light the lamp with four goals in the series to put himself within one of Dino Ciccarelli's NHL rookie record of 14 and within one point of the NHL rookie record of 21 held by Ciccarelli and Ville Leino, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each were held without a shot in a playoff game for the first time in their careers. In addition, Phil Kessel went without a goal for the third time in the series and seventh time in the past eight games.
"The speed was there, our execution was there, we made sure we were on the right side of stuff," Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "It was a 60-minute effort. Every guy really took their game to the next level."
Rinne was pulled in Game 2 and allowed eight goals on 36 shots in the first two games (.778 save percentage). So imagine how tough it was when even though Laviolette was convinced his team was "dialed in" to start the game, Guentzel scored his 50th pro goal in 95 games this season off a rebound 2:46 into the game.
"The first couple games and beginning of this game, it's been a battle," Rinne said. "At those moments, you just mentally, you try to erase your mind and focus on the next save and you remind yourself you're still in the playoffs and life's pretty good."
Rinne recovered, especially in the second period when he stopped 13 shots, including back-to-back chances by Kessel and Chris Kunitz.
"It was the same Pekka everyone's been talking about for a long time now," Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "Our belief in him never wavers in this room. He was unbelievable."
It's a series now. The game turned nasty at times and there also was some world-class chirping at the end between Crosby and Subban.
"He told me my breath smelled bad," Subban said. "I really don't understand why, because I used Listerine before the game. I thought my breath smelled great."