The Nashville Predators didn’t quite look like themselves Thursday night in their 2011-12 home opener, losing to the Phoenix Coyotes 5-2 at Bridgestone Arena. In fact, it was the Coyotes who appeared to be the ones playing Predators hockey as they garnered their first win of the young season. Meanwhile, Nashville’s David Legwand (right) continues to play like no one else, notching another pair of assists Thursday and now leads the NHL in points (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images).
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena, the Phoenix Coyotes pulled off a convincing imitation of Nashville Predators hockey, but the impersonation wasn’t the least bit flattering to Head Coach Barry Trotz’s crew. The desert dogs defeated the Predators 5-2 in the team’s home opener, leaving the sellout crowd of 17,113 murmuring as they headed out the exits.
It’s understandable that the home crowd walked away a little stunned. The Preds came into the game 2-0, off a pair of impressive road wins in Columbus and St. Louis over the weekend. They were 3-0 at home during the preseason in which they had the best record in the NHL at 7-1. Optimism surrounding this team has been rampant, literally since they exited the playoffs, courtesy of the Vancouver Canucks last May, having made it to the second round for the first time as a franchise.
On the other hand, the beleaguered Coyotes came in looking like a vulnerable team, in much the same way that Nashville has been perceived in recent years by the national media. In addition to their much-documented and continuing ownership instability, they lost their best player, goaltender Illya Bryzgalov whom they were more or less forced to trade to Philadelphia in order to keep from losing him for nothing in free agency this past summer. As a result, almost no one touted them to be a playoff team this season, despite the fact that they’ve averaged 103 points — the same number the Detroit Red Wings over the past two years.
Just as it’s always been a fool’s errand to underestimate the ability of Barry Trotz to get the most out of his players, the head coaching style of Phoenix’s Dave Tippett is based on the exact same philosophy: speed, active sticks on the forecheck, strong goaltending, and capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes.
Phoenix is a team that knows how to defend, and if one thing has been proven time and time again in the NHL, it’s that while defense may not sell, it does win. The Coyotes played to their strengths and literally beat the Preds at their own game.
Phoenix came into the game 0-1-1, having been smoked at San Jose in their season opener and then losing their second game at Dallas in the shootout. However, Tippett was able to marshal his troops for an all-out effort in Nashville; the last of the team’s triumvirate of road games to start the 2011-12 season.
The light-scoring Coyotes bolted to a 3-0 first period lead versus a Nashville team that looked at times as though they were skating in quicksand. It was 4-0 before the Preds seemed to wake up and smell the coffee in the game’s latter stages, unfortunately for them however, the coffee was decaf.
They tried to claw back, scoring once in the second period on a short-handed chance by Ryan Suter, and again, midway through the third, on Colin Wilson’s slapper via a nice drop pass from David Legwand, who assisted on both Predators goals on the evening and continues to impress offensively in the season’s early going. Legwand now stands alone as the NHL’s points leader with 7.
The goal by Wilson — his first of the season — would make the score 4-2 at 9:08 of Period Two, giving Preds fans hope that a miraculous comeback was still possible; that’s when Tippett’s grind-it-out philosophy came to the fore and limited the Preds scoring chances for the rest of the game.
A major aspect of Phoenix’s domination of time of possession was an extremely successful cycle game in the attacking zone. It never yielded any considerable scoring chances, but took valuable time off the clock, as the Predators seemed at times powerless to break it. On the other hand, in the Coyotes end, Nashville seemed just as inept at generating any kins of consistent puck movement; Phoenix’s active sticks spoiling passes and blocking shots almost at will. The Predators lost the shot battle 31-25, but it really wasn’t that close as few of the Predators’ chances were quality ones.
No one will offer it as an excuse, but not having Patric Hornqvist available for the game seemed to hurt the Preds in the energy department, especially early on when they appeared almost listless in the first-and-early-second periods. Having missed only five games the previous two seasons, Hornqvist’s durability has almost been a given. His absence with a lower body injury may have a more pronounced effect on the team than anyone gave credit to.
Depending on how long Hornqvist is out (he’s currently listed as day-to-day), replacing his energy is something the Preds will need to address before their next game this Saturday night, when they host the New Jersey Devils; another team who employs a similar, grinding defensive style like Phoenix, but also adds to the mix dynamic offensive potential in superstar forwards Zach Parise and Illya Kovalchuk.
The Devils come in to Bridgestone Arena with a record identical to the Preds’ 2-1-0 mark, having just knocked off the L.A. Kings Thursday night in Jersey. They’re tied for the league’s top penalty kill at 100% in 13 attempts. The Predators were held without a power play goal for the first time this season Thursday, so if they hope to beat the Devils it would appear that their five-on-five play — which has traditionally been their strength but has flagged thus far this season — will have to step it up.
Since February 29, 2000, the Preds and Devils have battled thirteen times. Eleven of those games have been decided by one goal, with three of the six meetings since the lockout requiring a shootout to determine a winner. Nashville won last season’s encounter fairly easily, but it was against a New jersey squad that was mired in a horrible streak of underachievement and without the services of their captain, Parise who missed most of the season with a knee injury. Parise has a pair of goals already this season; Saturday’s game will be a considerably stiffer test than the last one.
Preds Need a Re-Set
With Marty Erat on IR, Hornqvist day-to-day, and Mike Fisher still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the offense will be in the familiar circumstance of looking for scoring help, at least in the near-term. The Preds need to get back to their roots. They need to get back to playing Predators hockey. No doubt Barry Trotz will make that point well known in practice today. The Phoenix loss should be a wake-up call that no team in the Western Conference can be taken for granted, and neither can anyone else.
They need to remain true to themselves; true to their nature, accepting no substitutes, especially when that substitute is the team at the other team end of the ice.
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