Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

If the NHL and NBC had had their druthers, the Predators would not have swept the Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, because the first rule of Western Conference ratings priorities is that the Blackhawks must win.

Actually, there are no other rules. It’s generally Chicago or bust, the lone Original Six team west of Muskegon.

But here we are, after the Predators took the worst record among the 16 teams in the tournament, ousted two division champs in the Blackhawks and Ducks — plus the Blues in between — and on Monday secured their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final. They’ll face the Penguins.

Nashville?

At first glance, it seems to rank highly on the strangeness meter among metropolitan areas that have made it at least to a Cup Final, including Dallas, Tampa, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Miami and San Jose.

But it says here that this is a good thing for hockey, more so than the average non-traditional market in which the NHL dreams of making a lasting mark.

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“Smashville,” as the marketing people call it, has been a healthy hockey town for most of the 2010s after some dark days in the 2000s, even as the team suffered playoff flops and never so much as finished first in its division.

Preds fever has affected everything from TV ratings to ticket prices. Games 2-6 of the conference finals were the five highest-rated ever in Nashville on NBC outlets, topping out at 16.5 percent of homes for the clincher.

And tickets on the resale market for Games 3, 4 and 6 of the Final were averaging $2,436 as of Friday, according to TicketIQ.com, with a low of $1,007. Those figures are far higher than for the games in Pittsburgh, driven in part by extraordinarily low inventory.

In a town that lacks an NBA or MLB franchise and whose Titans have not won an NFL playoff game in 13 years, even lifelong Southerners have caught the hockey bug.

That fact predates this spring’s playoff run, a fact most in evidence when Nashville hosted last season’s NHL All-Star Weekend.

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The event featured spring-like weather, a downtown stage showcasing the city’s vast musical talent, a new All-Star Game three-on-three format and the most unlikely MVP performance in league history, by minor-leaguer John Scott.

It was a weekend that celebrated how Nashville sees itself and how the rest of the nation increasingly does, too — as a tourist-and-business-friendly hybrid of Southern sensibilities and modern cultural cachet.

Then came this season, one in which the Preds sold out every game at Bridgestone Arena and veteran hockey people marveled at the atmosphere inside and outside the arena, which sits in the heart of the tourist district.

To emphasize the point, A-list musical acts have been lining up to sing the national anthem before games, including Kelly Clarkson, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood.

Yearwood is married to fellow musician Garth Brooks, who showed up for Game 6 of the conference finals against the Ducks to hear her. Gill has been a season-ticket holder since the inaugural season of 1998-99 and was on the committee to design the arena.

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Underwood is married to Mike Fisher, the Predators’ captain.

Yes, we must be careful about not overstating all this, because most cities buy into the excitement when a local team advances deep into the playoffs, especially for the first time.

But all signs point to this being more sustainable than, say, what has befallen the Carolina Hurricanes a decade after they won the Cup, playing to tiny crowds in an off-the-beaten-path arena they share with North Carolina State basketball.

As much as any city in the country, Nashville has been riding a wave of cultural trendiness this decade. Having its tastemakers — as well as the wider community — on board with the Preds is all good for the NHL.

Up next: At least two more home games in June, and just maybe four more victories, which would lead to one of the biggest parties Broadway in downtown Nashville ever has seen. Which is saying something.