NASHVILLE Coming off the most successful playoff season in franchise history and having won their first two games on the road, the Nashville Predators set themselves up for something of a celebratory homecoming on Thursday.
Bridgestone Arena was sold out with 17,113 in attendance and gold T-shirts draped over every seat in anticipation.
When the puck hit the ice, the Preds coughed up a dud. They trailed 1-0 after 12 minutes, 2-0 after 14:28 and 3-0 after 18:45. They were down 4-0 midway through the game before they mounted a come back.
They cut the deficit to 4-2, but an empty-net goal by Phoenix finished them off at 5-2.
One factor that was hard to measure in the poor start was a video tribute played before the game in memory of former Pred Wade Belak, who died in August. The video showed Belak at his best, cutting up for the camera, performing work in the community and with his teammates all saying he was the funniest player on the team.
Most athletes psych themselves up before games, but for Preds players, who took out an ad in The Tennessean newspaper in appreciation of Belak shortly after his death, watching the video had to evoke some kind of emotional response and not the kind that gets you psyched up for a violent sport. The players are, after all, human and most were close with Belak.
Predators coach Barry Trotz said the team had previously viewed the Belak video and then he provided a mixed analysis of the effect it had on the team.
"I think it had the same effect on both teams," he said, before adding, "We were caught in the moment, standing there watching and not playing a hockey game. The game started and we were still watching."
Were it not for some excellent saves by goalie Pekka Rinne, the score could have been much worse at first intermission, as Nashville was outshot by 16-7 in the period.
Trotz called the period "awful."
"There's lots going on with the home opener and sometimes you get caught up on style instead of substance and we had no substance to our game," Trotz said.
"You have to play both sides of the puck. You have to eliminate people. You have to manage the puck. You have to be firm on people, and we did none of that. You can't pick and choose which side of the puck you want to play. There's responsibilities on both sides."
The only thing that seemed to wake up Nashville was having to kill a slashing penalty to Jordin Tootoo in the second period. Ryan Suter scored a short-handed goal to pull within 4-1 and that seemed to give the Preds life.
But not enough.
"Our defensive zone coverage is terrible," Suter said. "We've got guys going from man to man kind of chasing the puck around. Last year we did such a good job of taking away point shots, but tonight it seemed like defensemen were involved in every play. When you've got some of the skill they have you can't give them too much time."
Nashville gave up five even-strength goals to a Coyotes team that had yet to score an even-strength goal in its first two games. Trotz said the game simply highlighted shortcomings he saw in the first two games games in which Nashville had been rewarded with two points in the standings for each instead of punished for those actions.
"Sometimes you need to get whupped a little bit to bring you back to reality," Trotz said. "I don't think we deserved the two wins on the road and we showed you why."
The last half of the game at least gave Nashville something to build on. Trotz acknowledged that if Nashville had converted on a power play late in the second period, things might have worked out differently.
But now he has some ammunition for when the Preds hit the ice on Friday for practice. It's a long season. He usually whips them into shape. If they started the game poorly, well, on this night, maybe it was understandable.