NASHVILLE Its a common sight for any Central Division game at Bridgestone Arena on a Saturday night. Fans from out of town, dressed in the opposing teams jerseys, stroll up and down Broadway, cruising in and out of bars.
During the game, they try to start up their own chants and the home fans feel obligated to drown them out by generating their own noise, thus raising the decibel level of a notoriously loud building.
That was the case last Saturday when the St. Louis Blues visited the Predators with one point separating the teams in the standings for second and third place in the division not to mention fourth and fifth place in the Western Conference.
During a television timeout with 8:59 left in regulation, the Nashville fans took to one of their trademark thunderous standing ovations for the entire stoppage. Such was the atmosphere for the Predators 3-1 victory and an intensity that is likely to mark many of the remaining contests among Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit -- the Centrals top four teams no matter where they are played in what has become the NHLs dominant division this season.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock knows the kind of effort it takes to win on the road amid those hostile conditions and his teams inconsistent effort displeased him after Saturdays loss.
Youre not going to beat Nashville in Nashville on Saturday night, he said of his teams play. This is like the Colosseum in Rome coming into this place on Saturday night. Youre going to have to play a lot harder and a lot grittier than that if you expect to win.
Entering Monday, the Centrals top four teams represented half of the top eight teams in the leagues standings and thats with Chicago, riding a five-game losing streak and fallen to eighth overall, having sat atop the NHL standings just a few days before the All-Star break two weeks ago. Columbus, last in the leagues standings, is the lone outlier in the Wests most geographically proximate division closer even than the Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference. Traveling fans tend to spice up the divisional match-ups.
The Centrals four top teams might be unified by their success, but they are distinguished by their stylistic differences that are peculiar to their markets. Less than a decade removed from ranking among the NHLs biggest spenders, the Blues are much more disciplined in a financial sense nowadays. They also are more disciplined defensively since the veteran Hitchock, a Stanley Cup winner in Dallas, took over for the fired Davis Payne.
Under Hitchcock, the Blues are 24-7-7. Two of the NHLs five goalies with goals-against averages under 2.00 belong to the Blues: All-Star Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, who has four shutouts in his last eight starts.
Nashville is finding success in a similar way with goaltender Pekka Rinne having won 11 straight games and a pair of All-Star defensemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who quarterback the NHLs No. 2 power play.
The Red Wings, of course, have set the leagues standard for years with their most recent of four Stanley Cups in the last 15 years coming in 2008. They have the ability to spend, but have built a perennial winner on astute drafting of high-end skill players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom.
And Chicago, after decades as a sleeping giant, has re-awakened in recent seasons, winning the Cup in 2010 behind a mix of home-grown, high-end skill players they drafted as a result of down years, such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, along with key free-agent signings like 2011-12 All-Star Marian Hossa, whose 53 points tie him for eighth in the NHL.
Hitchcock was asked if his goaltenders might give him an edge in the divisional race, currently led by Detroit, whose 72 points are the NHLs most.
I think it is more of a necessity, he said. I think we need this. We need these type of performances to win hockey games. Were not the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks from top-end skill. Were a little bit like Nashville. We dont really have any body in the top 30 (in scoring), so youve got to do it by committee and the committee is, while youre revving up your engines, your goalies got to hold the fort.
On Saturday following the win over St. Louis, about a five-hour drive west of Nashville, Predators coach Barry Trotz noted the great vibe in the building for a rivalry game. Two weeks earlier, he put on a mock chamber of commerce routine, thanking all of the Blackhawks fans who migrated south in large numbers and took in the Music Citys many amenities.
Nashvilles Weber said he expects the level of intensity to remain for divisional games until the end of the season. Seven points separate Detroit and Chicago from first to fourth the smallest spread of any of the NHLs six divisions from first to fourth.
Yeah, I think especially like last year as soon as the All-Star break was over last year there are so many teams so close and just jockeying for position, he said. You dont even play and you move down a couple of spots and you win and youre back up. Its going to be a tight race through the end.
Nashville won its first playoff series in franchise history last season, ousting Anaheim in six games in the opening round. This season, Weber said Nashville has set its sights on winning the Central. The surging and perhaps surprising Preds have won 14 of their last 17 and own the best record within the division at 12-2-2. Detroit is next at 9-5-0; Chicago is 7-3-2 and St. Louis sits at 5-6-2.
On a recent visit to Nashville, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said that the division is arguably the best in a long time and emphasized the importance of so-called four-point divisional games, saying they have a playoff-type intensity.
Its pretty amazing this time in the year thats that the way it is, he said of the standings. I dont see it changing. Youve got to hopefully make some hay because that might be the differential between the teams getting any kind of separation.
With the way the race is going, its possible that the second- and third-place teams will finish with the conferences No. 4 and 5 playoff seeds and end up playing each other in the first round. As a result, Trotz said he looks at recent divisional games against St. Louis and Chicago as potential first-round playoff opponents. That has made for intense competition.
We have the same aspirations, Trotz said. We want to catch Detroit and make them be a lower seed. I think its just the good rivalries, its the parity, its all these things.