With seconds remaining in Game 6 on Monday night, Nashville Predators rookie defenseman Jonathan Blum intercepted a clearing attempt, dished to team captain Shea Weber, and then watched the guy with King Leonidas beard and the booming slap shot send a screamer at goalie Roberto Luongo.
Luongo never saw the puck through a double screen. But rather than fly past the Vancouver Canucks goalie, it bounced off of defenseman Dan Hamhuis in front and harmlessly to the corner — preserving the 2-1 victory, sending the Canucks to the next round and eliminating Nashville.
The same Dan Hamhuis that left Nashville, his only NHL home, for a 6-year, $27 million deal with Vancouver. The same Dan Hamhuis that gave a jab to the ribs of Predators fans last summer, mocking Nashville home games as sparsely attended.
Hamhuis isn't the first nor the last home-grown Pred to leave town for a raise. But the days of mocking this franchise's popularity and stability are growing short.
These fans — the die hards and the new recruits — have, for the first time, experienced the euphoria of winning a playoff round. Of living and dying with your team for weeks on end. Of seeing heroes born, like Joel Ward (seven goals) and Nick Spaling (2 goals in eliminating Anaheim). Of seeing villains born; every visit by the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks to Nashville now means more than it did in March.
The key for the Predators is to stoke that passion like a slow-burning fire.
Predators COO Sean Henry said the six playoff home games played in Nashville were vital to that end.
"Where the increase in your business comes is next year. You're playing to an audience that's passionate. We're going to have 1,000 people in our building that's either seeing their first game, or their first game in a few years," he said prior to Game 6. "We're enjoying a nice little renaissance in sales. Reconnecting with people."
Some of those reconnections, he said, go all the way back to fans who dropped coin for season tickets during "Save The Predators" drives when there was a real threat that the franchise was going to relocate to Hamilton in 2007.
"They were doing it to save the team. Some became hockey fans — they bought the tickets, and had to use them. But others let their tickets lapse," Henry said. "[The relocation bid] also put our finances out there as a story. But that changed this year. Now people aren't talking about our attendance."
No, they're not. They're talking about Barry Trotz, finally leading a team to the semifinals after years of working minor miracles during the regular season. They're talking about David Poile, the steady and professional GM whose team seemed like one big offensive weapon away from extending, or winning, this round. They're talking about the goalie, Pekka Rinne, who looks every bit the franchise cornerstone; they're talking about the big trade deadline pickup, Mike Fisher, and his Country Queen. They're talking about the fans who hollered and chanted and threw catfish so people who look like this pick them up:
(via Michael H.)
Soon, they'll be talking about the salary cap, with Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward going UFA; and Shea Weber facing an unprecedented pay day as an RFA, with Ryan Suter's UFA status looming in 2012.
Some will stay, some will go. All were a part of the moment when "non-traditional market" Nashville went from first-round also-ran to Cup contender.
Sorry, did we say "non-traditional market"?
"I like to call them 'new tradition' markets," said Henry.