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Eric Duhatschek

Coyotes fall short in opener despite the full house Add to ...

Outside, the crowds began to mass early. A tailgate party, organized by the Save The Coyotes' coalition, took place over in Parking Lot J, just outside the home of the Arizona Cardinals. The buzz for hockey, some of it presumably alcohol-fuelled, was genuinely in place.

Everybody in the sold-out Jobing.com arena received white T-shirts and pom poms as they entered the building Saturday for the Phoenix Coyotes' much-anticipated home opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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One enterprising fan, channeling Seinfeld's Soup Nazi character, held up a sign advising the team's rejected Research In Motion suitor: No Soup For You Mr. Balsillie.

Everything was in place for a storybook finish - except for one tiny detail.

After a week of telling people the thing they most needed to do to survive in Phoenix was to win games, the Coyotes lost.

The Blue Jackets made a first-period goal by Rick Nash and an empty-netter by R.J. Umberger stand for a 2-0 victory, sending the crowd of 17,532 home disappointed in the result, if not necessarily the process.

The Coyotes held a wide edge in the play, but were constantly frustrated by the Ken Hitchcock-coached Blue Jackets, who rode a flawless penalty-killing performance and 36 saves from goaltender Mathieu Garon to the victory.

Facing a Blue Jackets team embarrassed two nights earlier in San Jose by Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley, the Coyotes dominated territorially for large stretches and constantly had the Blue Jackets fouling them to keep up. Twice, they received lengthy five-on-three power-play opportunities, but couldn't convert either. In all, Phoenix finished zero-for-seven with the man advantage.

So much for good intentions …

It may be awhile before the Coyotes attract a sellout crowd again, so the disappointment was visible and palpable.

"Hockey's been here long enough that the fans who've been our fans know the game," said team captain Shane Doan. "We've been here 13 years; it's not like we just got here two or three years ago.

"But it's disappointing to leave them with that kind of taste in their mouths. It's never what you want, especially with the situation we had built up."

For the opener, ticket prices in the upper bowl were set at $15 and discounted in all other sections of the building as well. The hope was that after a summer that featured little else but news of the team's bankruptcy proceedings, the focus would shift to the on-ice product, which featured a new coaching staff, headed by Dave Tippett, and a new supporting cast, featuring Radim Vrbata, Robert Lang and others.

The Coyotes' season-ticket base is down about 30 per cent year over year and hovers in the 5,000-to-6,000, by one estimate - still more than three or four other teams in the NHL. For Thursday's next home game against the St. Louis Blues, the Coyotes expect a crowd roughly half the size of Saturday's.

What is it they say? You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

"This is the NHL," said Coyotes' coach Dave Tippett. "You've got to jump in and get the job done. Early on, we just didn't compete as hard as I'd like us to. It was more standing and watching the game.

"So those are things we'll have to learn and move forward."

Tippett called the crowd "excellent" and noted: "It's too bad we couldn't do something to make them erupt like they wanted to. I think the players sensed that. Sometimes, when you get power play after power play, they're waiting and anticipating, just like we are. Every time when they don't go in, that sucks a little more energy out of them. We were looking for something to energize them, and we didn't get it done."

It looks as if the biggest issue with the 2009-10 Coyotes may be scoring goals.

Making his first start of the season in place of Steve Mason, Garon had a strong night in goal - and recorded his third career shutout over the Coyotes - but he was also helped by some Coyote misfires as well.

Four games in, Doan is still looking for his first goal of the season, as are Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker, their three most promising young forwards.

Doan had the best opportunity to force overtime, but tipped a puck off the goal post midway through the third period.

"I thought that was in 100 per cent," said Doan. "But … I made highlight of the night the other night in Pittsburgh too by putting it right in his glove."

Phoenix pressed for the tying goal in the final moments, but Umberger put it out of reach with 17 seconds to go.

"We expect to win," said defenceman Ed Jovanovski. "Is their patience needed? Maybe. We won a couple of games; don't plan the parade. We got a lot of work ahead of us. I believe that, for the majority of games, we'll have an opportunity to win.

"Tonight, we ran into a hot goaltender and when we had our opportunities, we just missed. But just missed is not good enough."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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