By Stu Hackel
As we sit here on Tuesday, few could have guessed that the Nashville Predators would be trailing in their second round series 0-2 and facing the danger of early elimination at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes. The Preds are, after all, a team known for stellar defense and attention to detail, attributes that invariably lead to postseason success.
But that requires everyone adhering to a team concept, and when word came down late Tuesday morning that the Preds were suspending both Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn -- probably their two most skilled forwards -- for Game 3 for violating team rules, one draws the unmistakable conclusion that not everyone is buying in.
There has been no confirmation from the club as to the exact reasons for the ban, although GM David Poile, addressing the media (video), called it "a big distraction to our hockey team." Josh Cooper of The Tennessean added that Poile would not divulge specifics, but the rumor mill (also known as Twitter) is abuzz with reports that Radulov and the elder of the two Kostitsyn brothers were spotted in a Scottsdale bar -- which is about 45 minutes from the team's hotel -- well after midnight on Saturday. John Shannon of Sportsnet tweeted that the pair were spied at 4 AM on Sunday with Game 2 set for 5 PM.
Sources, however, tell us that Radulov is not a drinker, and the reason he and Kostitsyn were out late had less to do with alcohol and more to do with female companionship. Regardless, of the exact violation, it's a brave move by the Predators at a time when they are already facing adversity for perhaps the first time this season.
Putting aside for a moment what adjustments this might force for coach Barry Trotz, the suspension is a real blow to Radulov's chances of cashing in on his pending restricted free agency status. Free agency is widely considered to be the reason why he returned to the NHL after the KHL season ended, to burn off the final year he owed the Predators in the entry-level contract he jumped three seasons ago.
Similarly, Kostitsyn -- traded in February to Nashville by Montreal, where he also reportedly enjoyed the nightlife a bit too much -- is due to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. If he and Radulov were hoping for a big payday, these suspensions may have cost them a good deal. Regardless of how talented they may be -- and there have long been questions about how well each applied their considerable talents -- breaking club rules at the most important time of the season won't look good on their resumes.
Radulov, of whom much has been expected, has one goal and five assists in the postseason, good enough to lead the Preds in scoring. Kostitsyn scored this big goal for the Preds in Game 2 vs. Phoenix, his third of the playoffs and the most by any Predator.
It was the only time the Preds were tied in that game, which the Coyotes won 5-3. Nashville has not led at any point in the series.
Losing these two players removes two offensive threats from the lineup, and Trotz will have to reconfigure his forward lines. Radulov had been skating with David Legwand and Gabriel Bourque on the top line. Kostitsyn -- who had been Radulov's linemate at times since Radulov returned from Russia, was most recently with Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist. The Predators must add two forwards to their lineup, but will likely be forced to play an even more defensive-oriented style.
Team defense has been a problem for them so far this round. They could have won Game 1, but lost in overtime. In doing so, they exhibited the sort of defensive breakdowns not often associated with this club, like this odd man rush that gave Phoenix a second period lead.
It was a great shot by Mikkel Boedker, but with the score so close, it was an uncharacteristic opportunity that Nashville almost never allows.
They were much worse moments in that Game 2 loss that revealed even more holes in Nashville's team defense. The Preds played as if they were still in shock from the first game's outcome. One could point at Pekka Rinne's goaltending as a reason they have fallen behind. It seems the Coyotes have discerned a weakness on his stick side and might be exploiting it. Plus, Rinne has lost his ability to control rebounds, one of his strengths. Whatever his technical flaws might be, his confidence seems shaken.
Trotz had defended both his goalie and Radulov, saying these failures have been team-wide more than the fault of individuals. “It’s the team in front of him,” Trotz said of his star goalie after the game on Sunday. “He has been OK, but the team in front of him hasn’t been OK.”
After Radulov was targeted on TV, Trotz said on Monday, “I know Rad took a lot from the NBC crew, but there are a lot of guys that have to look in the mirror right now that aren’t playing as well as they have. There are guys that haven’t contributed in any significant way in the last couple games here, be it scoring chances, be it defensive play, be it momentum, be it physicality, all the things....It’s just not good enough. We just have to up our game, plain and simple.”
And now they'll have to play Game 3 without a pair of important offensive weapons whose amorous adventure on Saturday may have squandered a big opportunity for themselves as well as their team.
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