NHL playoff series always end the same way. Two teams hit, punch and struggle for two weeks. When it's all over, they repeat a scene right out of Little League: They line up and shake hands.
It's a little incongruous — after all this, don't these guys hate each other? How can anybody want to shake that guy's hand? How can anyone get that close to Shea Weber's beard and not be sucked into the wormhole it surely hides? But it is, ultimately, a charming bit of sporting tradition.
When the horn sounded Monday night, and the Vancouver Canucks secured a 4-2 series victory over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena, the players repeated hockey's enduring tradition. Typically, the gesture is followed by an interview with the star of the series, maybe a quick lap by the winning team, and camera shots of the losing team dejectedly filing back to the locker room to shave their beards.
If a team loses on home ice, the TV cameras will no doubt find the crestfallen faces of the die-hards, wiping their tears away with the gratis rally towels, shots in the background of fans streaming to the exits.
But something different happened in Nashville. As the teams went through the congratulations parade, the Nashville fans stayed. And, as has become their calling card, they stood and gave their team maybe the most bittersweet ovation of the season.
Despite the entreaties of public-address announcer Paul "Thanks Paul" McCann, fans flung gold towels onto the ice. At first, maybe, the rain of terrycloth was derisive. The same thing happened after Vancouver won Game 3 in overtime on a power-play goal from Ryan Kessler, the result of a dubious hooking call against Weber.
But the towel-tossing caught on. As the teams finished pressing the flesh, applause met a crescendo, and more towels came from the crowd, transforming a gesture of disgust into a Music City version of tickertape in New York's Canyon of Heroes. Rather than returning to the locker room, the team held up at the bench, players gazing skyward as most of the sellout crowd stood and applauded, bummed by the loss but appreciative of what was, by nearly every metric imaginable, the most successful of the Predators' 13 seasons at the corner of Fifth and Broad.
Despite falling short against the NHL's best team — and giving them all they wanted, as only one game of the six was decided by more than one goal — the team did what they typically only do after a win. The Predators, the losing team, took a lap around the ice, raising their sticks and showing love to the fans, from those who were there from Day One and through all the relocation drama to the new ones who got caught up in the Fang Fever of the playoff run.
These playoffs may well be remembered years from now as those in which Nashville grew up. Playing the only Canadian team left in the running has its advantages, and one of those is a rabid Canadian hockey media, all of whom need copy day after day during the series. At some point, their attention turned to the bleachers.
Wow, eh? Maybe Nashville is a good hockey market.
North-of-the-border sports channel TSN did a piece on the rowdy Nashville crowds, with the reporter marking Nashville as one of the three loudest arenas in the league, a trio that includes the Bell Centre, the bilingually boisterous barn in Montreal. Canadian columnists implored their readers — politely, of course — to stop saying hockey hadn't caught on in Nashville.
But as always, with maturity comes responsibility. Nashville won its first playoff series and earned league-wide respect. The enthusiasm of Predators fans became a league-wide talking point. And now both have to keep it up.
If the scene that played out in the waning minutes of the 2011 season is any indicator, the Predators will no longer be the little team and fanbase that could. They'll be the ones who will.
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