Not even Moses looked this lost in the desert.
After taking just five games to salt away the Detroit Red Wings, a display of steady efficiency not unlike watching John Henry drive a railroad spike, the Nashville Predators advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the second time in two years, starting the series against the Phoenix Coyotes with two games in the arid exclave of Glendale, Ariz.
Perhaps it was the layoff — a weeklong respite between dispatching Detroit and the face-off against Phoenix — but the Predators played much of Game 1 looking lost and without the benefit of a pillar of fire to guide them. The 'Yotes out-Predatored the Predators: relying on stellar goaltending from Mike Smith, timely goal-scoring, smart defense and capitalizing coyote-like on Nashville's failures.
And yet the Predators — as they did so many times in the regular season — clawed back, finally netting a late power-play goal to send the game into overtime.
The Preds dominated the third period and overtime, controlling the play. But even though they fired shot after shot at Smith, they never managed to crack his code.
It took only one mistake — an iced puck and a face-off in front of Pekka Rinne. The old wizard Ray Whitney leapt on a loose puck, firing the OT game winner past the Finn, on a play that bore striking resemblance to the blasphemy-inducing goal-line jump passes Tim Tebow once used.
The Predators, though, were upbeat. Bad bounces, bad luck, a difficulty getting into gear after the long lay-off. One loss on the road doesn't kill you in the playoffs.
But two in a row isn't ideal.
The heavily favored Predators saw light after Game 1: carry over the momentum into the second game, wrest home-ice advantage from the scavenging 'Yotes — the Western Conference's third-seed simply by virtue of being the best team in the flaccid Pacific Division — and return to Nashville with a chance at controlling the series.
Instead, the Predators offered up a limp performance, a game of gaffes that all but had "Yakety Sax" playing over the highlights. Giveaways led to odd-man rushes, overexuberant shot-blocking attempts led to open-net goals.
And David Legwand, who has played many games — more than anyone — in a Preds jersey — played his worst: embarrassingly heaving the puck from his glove right onto the stick of a poaching Radim Vrbata.
There was plenty of blame to go around — and Barry Trotz said as much. Their opponent may have been the Coyotes, but it was the hapless Predators who stood there blackened and smoldering with no help from Acme.
No one caught the ire, though, quite like Alexander Radulov. NBC analyst Keith Jones singled out the Preds forward for an intermission polemic, casting him as disinterested and ineffective. It was a barely controlled xenophobic rant, full of the coded language North American commentators use to cast aspersions on European players: "lazy," "enigmatic."
It's a hockey trope, and an especially insidious and indolent one. What Jones and those who agree with him really mean when they say "enigmatic" is "not from Ontario."
And it seems Radulov had an excuse for his Game 2 lethargy. The Predators suspended him, along with Andrei Kostitsyn, for Game 3 on grounds of an unspecified "violation of team rules" that turned out to be a late night on game day. (Remember when I told y'all how stupid it was that Arizona was a non-daylight saving time state? Evidently it confused Rads and AK too.) Not a comforting development with the team's back against the wall.
Yet it's easy to see why tempers are high. This series against Phoenix was supposed to be the easy one. The Coyotes were supposed to be the Predators' sparring partner on the way to the conference finals, the jobbers from Jobing.com Arena taking the dutiful fall for the on-the-rise contenders in their march for the title.
All is not lost, of course, for Nashville. Playoff series are seven games for a reason — and no, the reason is not to drag the thing out for maximum beard growth. (It's to drag it out for TV ratings.)
Still, to win the series, the Predators will have to return to the desert, an Armee d'Orient set on conquering the sands. For the Preds, we've been told countless times, this is the year, the year glory comes to Broadway.
But one more unexpected slip-up, and that glory, like the vast and trunkless stone legs of Shelley's Ozymandias, could be a colossal wreck, boundless and bare, unrealized and forgotten in the Arizona desert. Let's hope we don't have to look upon their works and despair.
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