NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This Southern hockey town (yes, seriously), this catfish tank of a building, this deep and dangerous Predators hockey club?
As advertised. No ifs, ands or ain’ts about it.
And after Nashville turned into Smashville and piled on with a 5-2 win Thursday night, it’s going to take a little more magic from the Avalanche to make this thing a series. Hey, I know a guy. Goes by Nate.
Can MacKinnon flip the switch that made the 22-year-old the smart choice for the Hart Trophy? The Avs were as ready as the youngest team in hockey could be for the noise and nonsense that comes with a Smashville home game. It's no joke, either. From pop band Rascal Flatts singing the national anthem to concerts between periods, the Preds stay on brand and play to their base.
But for a while there — right after a Nikita Zadorov goal that put the Avs ahead — the visitors brought the sounds of silence to Music City. And it sounded beautiful to the massive underdogs. One problem, and it’s a biggie: as well as the Avs performed, the Predators were still that much better, and the feeling inside the building was that of a Stanley Cup favorite ready to pounce... at some point. And it did.
“I’m happy with the way we played,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said.
Yes, the scoreboard looks lopsided. A local publication even suggested with a headline: “How lopsided is it?” But it wasn’t — for two periods. The Avs dressing room sounded like a team that felt it let one get away. Instead of cowboy boots, the Avalanche arrived here under a guise of youthful naivety. There was no “Why not us?” like in 2014, the long-ago time they last reached the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was more “Why not see what’s up?” in Game 1 in Smashville. Then, you know, go from there.
As much as a win, the Avs sought hope.
Their hope lies in No. 29.
More brilliant chapters will be written in MacKinnon’s career. This series would be a good place to start scribbling. Every time the Predators score a goal, one of this city’s bazillion country stars or wannabes appears on the Jumbotron to tell the masses he likes, he loves it, he wants some more of it.
(Sorry, not a country guy. Google says it’s Tim McGraw.)
The Avs like Nate, they love him, they need some more of him.
“I feel a lot more excited than I did when I was 18. It just felt normal back then,” said MacKinnon, who made his playoffs debut as a rookie. “Now I realize how hard it is to make the playoffs.”
It’s no coincidence that in his first playoff series the Avs won when MacKinnon scored and lost when he didn’t. He didn’t pierce the net defended by Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne, but MacKinnon did register an assist on Zadorov’s goal. Hate to ask, yet again, but the Avs will need more. MacKinnon spoke with admiration about watching Penguins star Sidney Crosby register a hat trick the night before. This needs something like that.
Acknowledging they are big-time 'dogs against the 117-point Predators, does it give the Avs some comfort knowing they have the best player on the ice?
“I think with Nate, he drives our team every night. He’s a game-breaker,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said prior to puck drop. "You need a big play or a big goal, he always seems to be there. That’s something we’re fortunate to have that a lot of teams don’t.”
You had a better chance to take the stage across the street at Tootsie’s than you would of finding an empty seat among the 17,113 who turned Bridgestone Arena into a country rave. Nashville a hockey town? I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it. But it’s for real. They crack one early and party late. On the bright side, only one catfish was thrown onto the ice. It wore a top hat.
"It's a party city," MacKinnon said.
Credit the Predators. Instead of falling back on their heels when faced with a pair of early deficits, the Preds turned up the volume. Nashville scored a hat trick in a runaway third period. And the jacked-up soundsystem blasted that pop song again and again and again.
“We got away from our game a little bit,” said winger Blake Comeau, who tipped in Colorado’s second goal.
Game 2 is Saturday — same place, 1 p.m. MST (MacKinnon Standard Time, if the Avs are to win.) If you ask the Avs, the Predators should be down a man after forward Ryan Johansen leveled Barrie with a vicious elbow to the head. It took a minute for Barrie to find his feet. He’s not happy about it, either, and the Avalanche believe a Johansen suspension should be in order.
“That’s up to the league and I’m sure they’ll make the right call,” Barrie said.
The right call for the Avs — the only call for the Avs to make this thing a series — is to see one of their young studs emerge with a monster game.
They know a guy.
“We’re the 16th seed. I think the pressure’s on Nashville,” MacKinnon said prior to the game. “Whoever’s the favorite has more pressure. But there’s tons of great players on this team. I feel a lot of responsibility, but I don’t feel a ton of pressure to produce.”