GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Nashville Predators made a series of changes at the trade deadline in order to beef up their offense and toughness -- and transform themselves into a fairer fight with the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Blackhawks and the other elite teams in the Western Conference.
And for one playoff series against the Red Wings, the plan worked to perfection. There was just one problem: The Blackhawks weren't waiting for them in the second round.
It was the Phoenix Coyotes, a team built more like the plucky Nashville teams of the past, who weren't interested in matching skill and were more than happy to grind in front of elite goaltender Mike Smith.
Start with some frustration, add in a little team dissention and, just like that, the Predators are going home much earlier than they expected – just like the Blackhawks. Monday's 2-1 loss in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals capped 11 days of frustration that included defensive breakdowns, suspensions to forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov and enough blown scoring chances to fill an entire postseason.
"It's the worst feeling in the world," said Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, who allowed three goals in the last three games of the series and came out a loser twice. "You think that if this would have happened or that … but they worked hard and their goalie was unreal. He was the difference in the series.
"It's tough to swallow. The series goes by so fast it is over before you ever realize it. We played a lot of good hockey, but now it's done."
Nashville brought in defenseman Hal Gill, center and faceoff specialist Paul Gaustad and a scorer in Kostitsyn at the deadline; they brought Radulov back from Russia to beef up its team for the postseason. But the Preds' work ethic wasn't there in the first two games, and the distraction of the Kostitsyn and Radulov suspensions hung over the team the rest of the way.
But Smith stoned Nashville at every turn, and the Predators allowed the first goal in all four games they lost – and never led in any of them.
"As (general manager) David (Poile) said, he was 'All in,' " Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We gave up some draft choices to get some pieces that we needed -- the Hal Gills the Gaustads -- and they were big pieces. We had high expectations as an organization and we didn't get it done.
"I don't want to take anything away from the Coyotes. They found a way to beat us and they've beaten two pretty good hockey teams now. [The] Chicago Blackhawks are a good hockey team. We're a good hockey team, and they found a way to get it done with a really good goaltender, a strong defensive commitment and some timely goals and they got it done."
Nashville captain Shea Weber said the first two games in Phoenix -- where Nashville lost 4-3 in overtime and 5-3 in an uncharacteristic, high-scoring affair -- was where the series was lost.
"We didn't play our style early in the series and they took advantage early and we dug ourselves a big hole. After that, it's tough to beat a team like (four times five games)," Weber said. "In Game 1 we deserved a better fate, even though they played well defensively. In Game 2, we weren't ourselves at all. They definitely deserved that game."
Now the Predators have decisions to make. Weber is a restricted free agent, while defense partner Ryan Suter is unrestricted. The draft picks cashed in for immediate help are gone. And there are no assurances those rent-a-players acquired at the deadline will be re-signed.
"You know that every year it's going to be a different team and it's always one of the things that stings the most," Rinne said. "You battle for your teammates and then next year, maybe they aren't here. You never know."
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