NASHVILLE -- This was no ordinary practice.
The Nashville Predators hit the ice Thursday to begin preparations for their first Stanley Cup Final, which will begin on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
The Penguins defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
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While waiting to learn their opponent, the Predators had a short, intense practice, their first since defeating the Anaheim Ducks 6-3 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Monday.
Coach Peter Laviolette had an extra bounce in his step heading to practice and had a smile as the players got back to work.
"It felt awesome to be out on the ice today," said Laviolette, who will be coaching in the Stanley Cup Final for the third time, with a third team. He won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and returned in 2010 with the Philadelphia Flyers but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. "The other side of that is you are not on the ice today and you are having meetings and it's over. So for us to be down this road, that's why I say guys are focused.
"They'll be ready; they are ready. It's an exciting time of the year. There is no place any hockey player would rather be than playing in late May and early June."
The number of fans attending practice has continued to multiply, and the noise from the packed stands has increased as well. The bleachers at Rink B at Centennial Sportsplex were full Thursday, the first time that has happened this postseason.
Outside the locker room, more Nashville media than in the previous rounds gathered for interviews with Laviolette and the players.
"Every round it just amps up, amps up and the city, this town has just come alive and gone crazy and that is a cool feeling," captain Mike Fisher said.
Fisher practiced Thursday after missing the past two games because of an undisclosed injury. He was all smiles as he took line rushes and did 2-on-2 battle drills.
Like Laviolette, Fisher knows what it means to get to this level. He did with the Senators in 2007, when they lost to the Ducks in the Final.
"Some guys aren't able to get to a Final," said Fisher, 36. "For the young guys, you think you have your whole career ahead of you and before you know it … it's so hard to do. It takes so much work and you never know. That is why you have to make the best of those opportunities and enjoy it along the way, enjoy the journey. It's something special, there's no question."
Fisher is the only Nashville player to play in a Cup Final. The others are learning on the fly and are enjoying the experience as it unfolds.
They have seen how their success has energized the city, the region and beyond.
Defenseman Ryan Ellis is in his sixth NHL season, all with the Predators, and though he's seen the fan base grow and become more engaged during his time, he said it's never been like this.
Every day when he leaves for the rink, he says, he sees Predators logos on many of the mailboxes in his neighborhood, and the number seems to grow by the playoff round. He also has seen videos of the bedlam downtown on game nights as thousands of fans watch the games on a big screen outside Bridgestone Arena.
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"It's pretty magical what is going on down there," he said. "You see bumper stickers, you see T-shirts. You're walking in the park and you see a Filip Forsberg jersey and stuff like that."
This newfound interest has turned the area into one that seems to care as much about hockey as football, which once was the unquestioned king.
"To realize that your team had a hand in kind of building a different game here and getting everybody excited about a sport that is not necessarily traditional here," Ellis said, "it's exciting for sure and something you will think about when it is all said and done and your playing days are over."
For defenseman P.K. Subban, the excitement has been a revelation.
He had spent his first seven NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and their deep hockey tradition before being traded to the Predators on June 29.
"When you look at the support we have gotten from the fan base, it's pretty unbelievable," Subban said. "I've played in some great atmospheres and some pretty cool games while in the NHL and even internationally. [Nashville] has to be one of the best I have ever experienced and it's only going to get bigger and better and I think that is going to continue for a good long time."
Subban also understands that what the Predators are doing now only will accelerate the growth of the fan base. He welcomes the opportunity.
"[This is] a great place to play, a fun place to play and a great place to win," he said. "The more people that can jump on the bandwagon, great."