It's retrospective time; the calendar tells us so. I have no difficulty reflecting on the high points of 2017. How could it be anything but "the run?"
The Nashville Predators' run to the Stanley Cup Final was without question one of the highlights of my professional life. I've covered four Super Bowls (remember the ESPN 30-for-30, "The Four Falls of Buffalo?"), was on hand for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and when a rookie guard-forward-post-man named Magic Johnson helped the Lakers win the 1980 NBA title. So, I have been around for some high-level sporting events. The emotion of that run to the 2017 Cup Final sits at the top of my list.
Remember the summer of 2007 and how close the Predators were to being moved out of the city? Hard for those of us working for the team at the time to forget. We were preparing our homes for sale. The copiers were pumping out resumes at a record rate. Those who could were at least seriously seeking other jobs.
Who would have thought, at that time, that 10 years later things could be so different?
Until 2011, the Predators' forays into the playoffs were a one-and-done experience. Then, a Round 1 victory over Anaheim broke the mold, but a second-round defeat by Vancouver ended the new experience pretty quickly. In 2012, a win over Detroit (with the "passing of the torch" photo of Shea Weber shaking hands with the retiring Red Wing captain, Nicklas Lidstrom), but followed by a loss to the Arizona Coyotes, who would fall victim to the eventual Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings.
All of this led to the 2016 playoffs and the Predators' first-ever Game Seven(s). In Round 1, it featured a win at Anaheim to close out the series. Up next were the San Jose Sharks and another Game 7. The Predators lost that one in San Jose, so while they went 14 games into the playoffs for the first time, the bottom line was much the same as the previous season.
The summer of 2016 was highlighted by the Shea Weber - P.K. Subban trade and great expectations for the team. It took a while for those expectations to be realized.
The Predators were the last team to qualify for the playoffs, so it began very modestly. The opponent would be the Chicago Blackhawks, the best team in the West. A team that had eliminated the Predators in 2010 and 2015. With three Cups to their credit going back to 2010, they were the prohibitive favorite.
Who would have thought they would not score in two games on United Center ice? And that's what happened: 1-0 classic first game, 5-0 in the second. We didn't hear the Blackhawks' goal song, "Chelsea Dagger." There was a smattering of boos in the stands, but mostly silence, as the Predators and Blackhawks moved on to the Music City. They gave up two goals in Game 3, but won in overtime on Kevin Fiala's strike:
Video: CHI@NSH, Gm3: Fiala beats Crawford for OT winner
The stage was then set for Game 4:
Video: Predators sweep Hawks to advance to Second Round
Next up after the euphoria of the first sweep of a No. 1 seed by No. 8: the St. Louis Blues. In St. Louis, the Predators beat the Blues in Game 1, 4-3, but lost Fiala to a broken femur. Their five-game playoff winning streak ended in Game 2 as Vladimir Tarasenko scored twice in a 3-2 Blues' win. Then the scene switched back to Bridgestone Arena and the Predators held serve, taking a 3-1 series lead. St. Louis forced Game 6 with a 2-1 home win. The Predators success on home ice continued:
Video: Preds oust Blues in six games, advance to first WCF
The Predators and their fans had to wait three days to find out whom they would face next: Edmonton or Anaheim, in the Western Conference Final. Their seventh game would be at Honda Center on May 10. The Ducks prevailed, 2-1, and the Predators and Ducks were set for their third playoff series meeting. Again, the series would open on the road for Nashville, and for the second consecutive series, the Predators would split Games 1 and 2, winning Game 1 in overtime:
Video: NSH@ANA, Gm1: Neal nets Subban's feed for OT win
In Game 2, the Ducks erased a two-goal deficit to even the series with a 5-3 win. In Nashville, the Predators overcame a pair of goals disallowed for goaltender interference for a 2-1 win, but the Ducks got their split in Game 4 with an OT goal by Corey Perry. After the game, the news: an injury to Ryan Johansen would keep the Predators No. 1 center out for the balance of the playoffs. The Predators went to "next man up" back in Anaheim:
Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Aberg lays out to net go-ahead goal
Back home for Game 6, the Predators got a hat trick from Colton Sissons, filling in for Ryan Johansen. It was an emotional night, years in the making, at Bridgestone Arena:
Video: Predators defeat Ducks, advance to Stanley Cup Final
At that point, the Predators did not know if they would be playing Ottawa or Pittsburgh in the Cup Final. The Senators stayed alive with a Game 6 win the next night in Ottawa, then played a double-overtime game in Pittsburgh which was ended by Chris Kunitz, sending the Penguins to their second Cup Final in two seasons.
As the playoffs went on and the Predators moved from round-to-round, downtown Nashville took on a festival atmosphere. For the first time in team history, the Predators were playing games in the month of June. Fans flooded the streets and the plaza to celebrate, watching the games on outdoor screens set up for them.
Those fans wanted to be a part of the scene, and would have preferred to be inside with 17,000 others:
Video: Predators use strong 2nd to down Pens in Game 3, 5-1
Game 4 was much of the same, and after a return home to Nashville, the Cup Final was tied:
Video: Preds even series with help from Rinne in 4-1 win
At that point, no one could have known that Filip Forsberg's goal in Game 4 would be the last of a magical season for the Predators.
But among the things I will never forget, it's the fervor of the fans.
They made a scene that Nashville will never forget. I started in the National Hockey League in 1978, and it was my first time to the Stanley Cup Final with a role to play.
Thank you, 2017. Now the challenge is up to the New Year!