NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The day after a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final ended the Nashville Predators' thrilling run through the 2017 playoffs, things were slowly returning to normal around the city. The sea of Predators hats and jerseys had subsided, and traffic was once again running along Broadway in downtown Nashville.
The only evidence of the Predators' epic run remaining outside Bridgestone Arena might have been the beat-up Penguins "Smash Car," a vehicle reduced to a gnarled collection of metal after absorbing hundreds upon hundreds of blows from sledgehammer-wielding Predators fans.
The madness surrounding the team that had taken over the city over the past two months had mostly faded, but there was still plenty of pride around Music City about its hockey team. And maybe just a little chatter about the second-period goal in Game 6 that was nullified by a premature whistle.
"I think everyone was so focused on how far the team went, the records that we set, the dominating game that we played, the strength of our team. But the disallowed goal was just an unfortunate way to end -- and heartbreaking," said Ali Tonn, a Predators fan who also serves as the director of education and public programming at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "I just think there's a lot of pride and support and excitement for next season."
That disappointment over Colton Sissons' controversial non-goal and seeing the Penguins hoist the Stanley Cup on the Predators' home ice was apparent among locals and fans around town the day after the 2016-17 NHL season officially came to a close. But that disappointment was dulled somewhat by the excitement that was still emanating around the city. The young Predators team's ascent to hockey's biggest stage came sooner than expected, and their fan base's fascination became fixation before reaching all-out pandemonium levels during the Cup Final.
With free concerts by big-name performers before each home Cup Final game and a viewing party taking place just a guitar pick's flick away from the multiple honky tonk bars lining Broadway, the scene outside Bridgestone was electric. Tens of thousands of fans packed the area, alerting the sports world to the fact Nashville has become a legitimate hockey market just a decade after Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie attempted to purchase the team with the intention of moving it out of Nashville.
"It's reaffirmed to me how good a hockey market this has become since the sale of the team in 2007," said broadcaster Pete Weber, who has been the voice of the team since its inaugural 1998-99 season. "You get largely local ownership involved here, and they have friends who like to help them out. That circle of friends has been greatly enlarged over the last 10-11 years."
The day after the deepest playoff run in franchise history came to an end, that ownership was no doubt thrilled. Demand for tickets at Bridgestone Arena is likely to spike for a team that sold out every home game for the first time in the club's history.
That increased demand and overall fascination with the Predators won't be without expectations that will no doubt be sky-high next season -- especially for a team led by a youthful roster that advanced to the Cup Final despite missing two top young forwards -- Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala -- who were lost to injury during the postseason.
Considering how fully the state of Tennessee embraced the Predators, this team now faces a new reality, one in which a run to the Cup Final isn't just a hope for the franchise. It's now the standard, one that much of the hockey world is happy to embrace if it means partaking in a celebration as raucous as what Nashville rolled out during these playoffs.
"Every day was a Saturday during the playoffs, which is great. Makes my night go by a lot faster and it makes me proud too," said Parker Hazard, a local fan and manager at the legendary Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. "From listening to guys on TV, it sounded like Nashville was the best atmosphere in the playoffs. How this city and this community came together in all shapes, sizes and colors behind that team, and how much faith we had for that team ... to me, that's what sports is all about."
Of course, any discussion of next season inevitably raises the question about the sea of gold that exuberantly propelled the Predators through the postseason. Will the energy and electricity that emerged all around Preds Nation carry over to 2017-18, or was this all just a spirited bandwagon that reached critical mass?
It doesn't take long to get a definitive answer to that question from people all around Music City.
"Why stop now?" Hazard said. "We as a fan base came this far and went so hard. There's no ceiling to it. It's a young team. Ticket prices aren't going to be lower, that's for sure. But that's a good thing. Nashville hasn't had that, other than the Titans going to the Super Bowl. I truly believe it's not one of those one-and-done type of things."
The pieces all appear to be there. The Predators are a speedy, exciting team laden with young All-Stars who captured the rowdy imagination of a growing fan base and put the rest of the NHL on notice. And if they can harness the lessons they learned during the 2017 playoffs and make a similar run next season, the city is likely to do it all over again with the most unique catfish-tossing, beer-slamming, guitar-strumming celebration in the NHL.