The Nashville Predators already faced a tough challenge returning home, down 0-2 to the Phoenix Coyotes in their Western Conference semifinal.
Now, they either have something to rally around with forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn suspended for Game 3 on Wednesday night or wind up with yet another excuse in this series.
The Predators announced the suspensions Tuesday morning, and general manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz said the decision to punish the forwards for violating unspecified team rules was easy. The general manager is leaving the decision on whether the men return for Game 4 on Friday night up to Trotz.
Poile refused to specify what Radulov and Kostitsyn did, saying any hint would give away what they did. He called their behaviour unfortunate and selfish.
"I hope there is some remorse for what they did," Poile said. "Time will tell with their behaviour and if they get the opportunity to get back into the lineup."
The timing couldn't be worse for the Predators. They haven't trailed 0-2 in a series since 2008 against Detroit. They managed to even that series by taking both games on their own ice before losing in six games. Trotz said 2008 was a long time ago, with these suspensions the simple consequence to rules being broken.
"Every team that has success in the playoffs has to go through some adversity," Trotz said. "They haven't had to go through a whole lot of adversity yet, so this is a good test. When you go through adversity, it really reveals your character so we're going to find out what kind of character we do have."
Kostitsyn is tied for the team lead this post-season with two goals, and he has scored in each of the losses in Phoenix. Nashville picked him up at the trade deadline from Montreal, reuniting him with his younger brother, Sergei. Radulov has a team-high seven playoff games and set a franchise record with an assist in four straight post-season games in the first series.
Both men spoke with their teammates. Kostitsyn did not talk with reporters after practice in Nashville. Radulov did, and said he will support his teammates Wednesday night. He hinted the rule violation may have been curfew.
"I didn't come back that late that they were saying, but like I said before, I don't want to talk about it," Radulov said. "They did what they had to. I am disappointed, and I understand what is my mistake."
Radulov is the wayward forward who spent the past four seasons in Russia playing for the Kontinental Hockey League. He returned in March to scratch the final year of his original contract and keep playing hockey after his KHL team was eliminated.
Trotz's options include Matt Halischuk, who has not played since Game 4 in Detroit, rookie Craig Smith or Jordin Tootoo. Smith played in Game 1 at Phoenix, while Tootoo played only in Game 3 at Detroit.
The Predators insist this will not be a distraction. Defenceman Ryan Suter said people make mistakes.
"As long as people learn from their mistakes, that's the biggest thing," Suter said. "We stand by him. When they do get back in the lineup, they're going to be a big impact."
Nashville captain Shea Weber said everyone needs to be held to the same standards and that everyone knows the rules. Now the focus is on Wednesday night.
"We dug ourselves a hole, and we have to find a good way to get out of it," Weber said.
The Coyotes practiced in Arizona before flying to Nashville on Tuesday. Coach Dave Tippett said the lineup Nashville uses because of the suspensions doesn't matter. The Coyotes are trying to pick up from their 5-3 win on Sunday night, which was their most dominant performance this post-season.
"We realize that Nashville is going to come out and play probably their best game of the series in Game 3, probably out of desperation, and we have to make sure our game is where it needs to be to give us the best chance to win," Tippett said.
The players also expect the Predators to be motivated regardless of who's in the lineup. Scoring also could be a bit more of a challenge. The Coyotes have scored nine goals in two games against Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, as many as he allowed in five games in the opening series against Detroit.
"He's a very good goaltender," Phoenix centre Antoine Vermette said. "It's something unusual. You don't see that many goals usually against this guy. So yeah, our approach has been good. That being said, we're going to have to do it again. We're going to have to create scoring chances."