The Nashville Predators are set to face the Phoenix Coyotes in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Predators got to the second round by dispatching the Detroit Red Wings in 5 games, while the Coyotes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in 6 games.
The Coyotes, winners of the Pacific Division and the third seed, will have home ice advantage over the 4th seed Predators, with the first game of the series on Friday night at Jobing.com Arena.
These two teams are very similar, and this should be a very close series. Let's examine the key components of this match up:
The Predators Pekka Rinne is reasonably considered to be one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL, and his second consecutive Vezina nomination is a testament to his caliber of play. The Coyotes Mike Smith has thrust himself into that conversation with his play this season and in the first round of the playoffs. In the playoffs, a goaltender has to elevate their game if their team is to have a chance to advance, and both netminders have done just that. Rinne finished the regular season with a .923 save %, and after the first round of the playoffs, his save % has increased to .944. Smith finished the regular season with a .930 save %, and that has increased to a .950 save % after the Chicago series. Both goalies are a mirror image of each other: big men that are athletic; track the puck well; and are positionally sound. Both do an excellent job of controlling rebounds. This series may well be decided by which goalie blinks first, and neither have shown a tendency to crack under the pressure their opponents bring. The key for each team will be getting lots of bodies to the net and creating havoc around the crease. Even with this, both Rinne and Smith have shown that they are able to handle this type of pressure.
The Predators are lead by the dynamic duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and they have shown that they are capable of shutting down the other team's best forwards. The Predators are hoping to get Hal Gill back for this series, and the massive defenseman will be a welcome presence of they can utilize his services. Kevin Klein will look to continue his stellar play from the first round. Rookie Roman Josi has a playoff round under his belt, and that experience will serve him well against the Coyotes. Frankie Buoillon is a solid defender that will log some tough minutes.
While the Coyotes do not have the big name defensemen that the Predators do, they still have some very good talent on the back end. Keith Yandle had 5 points in 6 games against the Blackhawks; Rusty Klesla had 4 points; and the talented Oliver Ekman-Larsson had 3 points. The Coyotes D has the talent to score and are very willing to jump into the play. Derek Morris provides some grit, and Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin add depth and experience.
Yandle, Morris, and Dave Schlemko (who played in game 6 of the Hawks series) were the only three Coyotes defenders that were a positive +/- in the Chicago series. Adrian Aucoin was an even +/-. It will be critical that the Predators forwards challenge the Coyotes defenders for territorial advantage in front of the net.
Look for the Predators defense to exert themselves and make it difficult for the Coyotes forwards to get to the net. Every Predators defenseman was a positive +/- or even in the series with the Wings. The Predators will look to continue to get sound play from the blueliners, and if they do, they should be able to make it difficult for the Coyote forwards to score.
Alexander Radulov lead the Predators with 5 points in 5 games against the Wings. Only one of those points came from a goal, and the Predators will need continued offensive contributions from Radulov, especially in finding the back of the net. Surprising rookie Gabriel Bourque led the Predators with 3 goals against the Wings, and this contribution was very welcome. Bourque has been moved to the second line with David Legwand (4 points in the first round) and Radulov, and this line needs to continue to gel and score. The Predators are looking to get their first line of Mike Fisher, Marty Erat, and Sergei Kostitsyn going and finding the back of the net. If they can do this, they will put tremendous pressure on the Coyotes and Smith in net. Once again, the swing factor could be the Predators third line of Nick Spaling, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Patric Hornqvist. This line has the ability and potential to present problems for the Coyotes with their ability to go hard to the net and create scoring chances.
Shane Doan is the heart and soul of the Coyotes, and he will bring maximum effort in every game. The Coyotes are very similar to the Predators in that they get opportunistic scoring from Doan and their forwards. Antoine Vermette has resurrected his career in the desert, as has Gilbert Brule. Mikkel Boedker was a Hawks killer, scoring two OT game winners, and Ray Whitney is a talented and experienced veteran that can create match up problems for the Predators defense.
Looking at both teams, there is a tremendous amount of similarity: good players that can score and have jam to their game. Both groups of forwards do an excellent job of capitalizing on the mistakes of the other team.
This series will be decided by the forwards that capitalize of the infrequent scoring opportunities that they can create.
The Predators had the number one power play in the NHL's regular season, but it sputtered in their first round match up, going 2 for 22, a 9.1% success rate. The Coyotes were more successful with the man advantage, going 4 for 19, a 21.1% success rate. It is stating the obvious that for the Predators to have success against the Coyotes, the power play has to improve.
The Predators PK was good but not great against the Wings, giving up 4 power play goals in 23 attempts for an 82.6% success rate. The Coyotes were outstanding on the PK, giving up 1 goal in 19 short handed situations for a 94.7% success rate.
With two evenly matched teams, the play of the special teams can be the deciding factor in this series. The pressure is on the Predators play on special teams to produce in this match up.
Both Barry Trotz and Dave Tippet are excellent coaches that get the most out of the players they put on the ice. Trotz has the advantage of taking his team to the second round last season, so this will not be a new experience for Trotz and the staff or the team. Trotz will do a good job of keeping the team focused and on an even keel.
Tippett has done an exceptional job of keeping his team focused on their play in spite of all the off ice distractions that have surrounded the team. The Coyotes respond well to Tippett's leadership, and he has them playing with confidence. Having home ice advantage and the control of the match ups on the ice works to Tippett's advantage, and look for him to exploit that to the maximum.
The Coyotes are making their first appearance in the second round, and one has to wonder if they will experience an let down after the emotions of winning their first ever playoff series.
The Predators face the weight of the expectations of this team. Trade deadline acquisitions and the return of Radulov have many believing that the Predators are a team that can contend for the Cup. Handling the pressure of those expectations will be critical for the team.
So, looking at all these factors, who wins the series?
This will be a hard fought series, and the team that makes the fewest mistakes and can capitalize on their opportunities will emerge victorious. It's cliche, but your best players have to be your best players in this match up, and I believe the Predators have the best players.
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