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Predators 5, Blackhawks 2: With starts like this one, who cares how they finish?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Go ahead and call it a dirty dozen. Twelve games into his time as coach of the Blackhawks, Jeremy Colliton sure has quite a mess on his hands.

Defensively, the Hawks are as in sync as a box of puppies. And will they ever stop one-upping themselves with unwatchable, unspeakable, unthinkable first periods? They’re so bad at starting, it almost doesn’t matter how they finish.

A 5-2 loss to the Predators was the latest, perhaps greatest example yet of all the ways in which the Hawks are going wrong.

By the time Duncan Keith was whaling on Mikkaa Salomaki barely seven minutes into the game — after a questionable hit by the Predators winger that the Hawks felt should’ve been ruled a penalty — the potential price of fighting seemed almost irrelevant. As it turned out, Keith was thrown out of what already was a 3-0 game.

Eeli Tolvanen is congratulated after scoring one of four Predators first-period goals against the Blackhawks. (AP/Mark Zaleski)

“It’s a tough game, and there has to be emotion to win,” Keith said. “Emotion is part of it.”

Sure, emotion helps sometimes. Especially for a team that never seems to have enough of it when the puck drops. Colliton put it perfectly when asked about the Keith-Salomaki flap, which also involved Alex DeBrincat trading blows with the much larger Matt Irwin.

“We showed some pulse, anyway,” Colliton said.

Prior to the game, Keith warned that the Predators (18-8-1) would be flying early because it was “Saturday night in Nashville.” Meanwhile, it was pick-a-night in pick-a-city for the Hawks (9-13-5), who did more of the same old miserable thing.

Here’s one to boggle your minds: The Hawks have been outscored by a total of 17-4 in the first periods of their last six games. Somehow, only five of those games have ended with the other team trading pats on the back and fist bumps.

The Hawks are 3-7-2 since Colliton took over for the fired Joel Quenneville, and it might be fair to say they haven’t been as good as their record. For sure, anyway, that’s true of the way they keep coming out of the starting gate.

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Brandon Saad, who got the Hawks on the board in a first period that ended 4-1, took a stab at identifying the problem.

“It’s just preparation,” he said.

Then he took another stab.

“It’s just a lack of focus.”

Well, which is it? The answer probably is that it’s both. But that’s not all.

Jonathan Toews ticked off a host of possible culprits: poor effort, too many mistakes, an insufficient energy level. Like Saad, he also cited the team’s focus.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he finally said. “It’s frustrating.”

So, how’s that team morale?

“Every game we play, we’ve found a way to get over the last one and get ourselves in good spirits and have the positive talk that we need in the locker room and prepare ourselves accordingly,” Toews said. “After, it doesn’t feel good when we’ve lost as much as we have lately. It’s hard to find your confidence when it’s going the way it is.”

Oh, and the league standings? What standings?

“It doesn’t matter until we find a formula that can win,” Colliton said. “We need to take care of our performance, find a way to bring it night after night after night, and then we’ll start getting points and then we’ll worry about the standings.”

A 33-year-old, first-time NHL coach will keep trying to crack the code.

“I’ve got to tell the truth to the team,” Colliton said. “We’ve got to find new ways to get the message across. We’re not going to give up. It’s our job to be relentless. That’s all we can do. We will respond at some point. That’s what I believe.”

Thank goodness somebody does.