Jerks vs. Morons: Predators Open Playoffs Monday at Carolina

The Carolina Hurricanes are a lot of fun.

This year's Central Division champions — against whom the Nashville Predators will open their first-round playoff series Monday night at 7 p.m. — are fast and skilled. They are young, with only four players 30 or older (by comparison, the Predators have eight 30-somethings on the roster). They have players with fun names like Teuvo Teravainen, Nino Niederreiter, Jani Hakanpaa, Jesper Fast and Sebastian Aho (not that one, this one).

They are also a bunch of jerks. At least according to unemployed nofunnik dog-whistle expert Don Cherry, who was once voted the seventh-greatest Canadian, ahead of the country's first prime minister, the inventor of the telephone and Wayne Gretzky. (It's worth noting that the first two were both born in Scotland and Alexander Graham Bell put "Citizen of the U.S.A." on his tombstone.) Anyway, back in 2019, the ’Canes started celebrating home wins with something called the "Storm Surge" — basically a choreographed celebratory dance/skit on ice. People loved it. Well, at least the people who count, which is to say the Hurricanes and their fans. Cherry, hater of most fun things including European hockey players and also equal rights, naturally hated it, using his bully pulpit on Hockey Night in Canada, the country's most important cultural export after The Weakerthans and various Randy Bachman bands, to declare the ’Canes "a bunch of jerks."

Predictably, the ’Canes and their fans — again, the only people who should care what the ’Canes and their fans do to celebrate — embraced the term, and "Bunch of Jerks" T-shirts became a top seller in whichever of North Carolina's 14 indistinguishable cities the ’Canes play in.

If this narrative sounds familiar to Predators fans, there's a reason. Derided since basically the first game as not belonging in the NHL (as if choosing which cities to expand to were as important as, say, electing the pope or picking a pair of socks to wear), the Predators organization and its fans have (blessedly) finally grown out of caring about the opinions of a bunch of people who said a walking surrealist upholstery store was their seventh-greatest citizen.

They made fun of us for our chants, so we chanted louder. They made fun of us for hanging banners, so we make endless jokes about hanging a banner. They made fun of us for wearing "that God awful gold," so we made a T-shirt

The latest round of out-of-town criticism is centered on the Smash Car, an old beater the team parks on the plaza in front of Bridgestone Arena painted in the opponent's colors. Fans can pay to take whacks at it during the pre-game, and the money goes to the Predators Foundation. For some reason, fans of other teams — not even teams the Predators are playing — hate this. Like this gentleman, a Pittsburgh Penguins fan who over the weekend tweeted: "Holy dopey traditions you rednecks are doing this again. It’s gonna be a little embarrassing when the ’Canes smoke you in 5. #fishthrowingmorons"

OK, well, first of all, anybody who supports a team from Western Pennsylvania needs to be careful about calling people "rednecks." Secondly, did he not realize how awesome a nickname "Fish Throwing Morons" is? Yes, we made a T-shirt.

The point being there's plenty of parallels between Nashville and Carolina. The locales are culturally similar (an ESPN writer pointed out he was excited for the series because of the pre-game tailgates) and similarly looked-down-upon by hockey trads. And of course, North Carolina is the mother state of Tennessee (though we may be staging some kind of stealthy reverse-irredentist movement disguised as a film shoot),

The fact is Nashville and Carolina are natural rivals, but the surfeit of NHL teams in the Northeast means the teams have never been in the same division (or even the same conference) until this year, when the pandemic forced the NHL to put all the Canadian teams in one division and squeeze everybody else into travel-friendly groups (leading to the fun outcome that all four Central Division playoff qualifiers — Tampa Bay and Florida being the other pair — are from the South). 

The playoffs, of course, ramp up NHL rivalries. But the sad fact is no matter what happens over the next couple of weeks, the ’Canes and Preds are destined to only meet twice a year for the foreseeable future (at least until some flailing franchise moves to Houston or Kansas City and the NHL has to realign again).

Historically, the ’Canes have been a tough opponent for the Preds, who, all-time, are exactly .500 against their eastern neighbors. Preds fans regularly watch games against Carolina with deep trepidation that Jeff Skinner will score a hat trick, despite him having not played for the ’Canes since 2018. 

This year was no exception: Carolina took the first six meetings, outscoring the Predators 23-9 in those games. The Preds bounced back, winning the final pair of games at Bridgestone Arena to close the season. And though no one will ever forget that final game, the win comes with the caveat that the ’Canes didn't exactly ice their A-team.

If there's any reason for hope the Preds might usurp the division champs, it's that for the first time in several seasons, the team feels like it has a real identity: four tough lines of forwards who work hard and hang around in games, giving the team a chance, especially with Juuse Saros — perhaps the best goalie in the league since mid-March — holding down the net behind them. Filip Forsberg is still a scoring wonder, but he actually ended up third on the team in goals this year behind (improbably) Calle Jarnkrok and Mikael Granlund. 

In large part, Forsberg's slide down the rankings is because he missed 17 games, but guys stepping up and playing admirably when a teammate goes down has been the story of the Predators this year. No Predator played in all 56 games. (Fourth-line stalwart Colton Sissons came closest at 54.)

Pundits aren't giving the Preds much of a chance — though in the past couple of weeks, some have started to suggest the series may be tougher for the ’Canes than it originally appeared — but that's a situation this team in particular (which had something like a 0.3 percent of making the playoffs in mid-March) and the organization in general has dealt with over and over again.

Sometimes belief is based on reason, sometimes on faith, and sometimes it's stupidity.

So let's be a bunch of morons. 

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