I find it nearly impossible to hate the Coyotes. They’re a good team that’s been through a tough few years off the ice. Amid bad ownership and a bad bad bad arena idea, they’ve survived by playing good hockey. If this team went into the tank like many other teams would have, the original Winnipeg Jets would’ve been back in Manitoba. Lucky for them, and the die-hards that stuck by their team (and a city council that went all-in on a hockey team in the desert, and has no choice but to keep them there), the Coyotes are still playing good hockey in Arizona.
Making it even more impossible to hate these guys, they’re led by one of the truly good leaders in the league- Shane Doan. Doan can play right on the physical line sometimes, and he’ll need to be more of a physical presence given that our good friend Raffi Torres is out until Thanksgiving or so. Also adding to their warm fuzzy story is Mike Smith, who the Lightning jettisoned after his epic GAA battle with Dan Ellis last season. Smith is good, and Chicago couldn’t figure him out.
You can toss out all the regular season meetings. The Preds faced Jason LaBarbera instead of Smith three times. The Coyotes played Nashville before the deadline madness three times. The one time that it was Smith and with Paul Gaustad, Andrei “Tank” Kostitsyn, and Hal Gill? 5-4 Shootout win for the Preds.
So where can the Predators take this series? Where they should have handled the Red Wings.
WHO HAS THE ADVANTAGE:
The Coyotes and Predators match up about as even as it gets. Both sides play positional defense well, and employ a solid forecheck to ruin the day. Neither team is known for peppering the net like the Wings or Blackhawks are, but both sides have some decent offensive weapons. And looking at the lines and pairings… there truly isn’t a glaring weak spot in the lineups. Their lines are constructed similar to the Trotz method of putting a solid defensively capable center between a playmaker and a shooter.
That said, Chicago was a real physical challenge for Phoenix. Roszival, “Rusty” Klesla, and Adrian Aucoin all were nicked up in the last series. Radim Vrbata isn’t playing at his top level, and Martin Hanzal also saw the trainer’s table. Nashville isn’t the most brutal team in the league, but they’re healthier and have some bigger bodies added into their lineup.
This is about as even as it gets in the forward department, but the Predators do have a large advantage in one area- top pairing of defensemen. This is unquestioned, and with Hal Gill returning to the lineup expect more offensive punch from both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
Verdict: Nashville simply based on Shea and Ryan causing some serious havoc.
On a Phoenix Coyotes Power Play
Phoenix’s power play was terrible for most of the season, but they exposed Chicago’s rotten penalty kill. Nashville’s penalty kill wasn’t outstanding against Detroit, though it was pretty solid through the end of the regular season. Having Hal Gill around will make the difference in a few areas of this series, and this is the most obvious. Kevin Klein will need a repeat performance of his inspired play near the net, and Suter and Weber will need to find that “beast gear” we saw at times during the Detroit series.
Phoenix has their own studs on the blue line, and Keith Yandle’s timely shooting and creativity will be depended on if the ‘Yotes want to make this a series.
Verdict: Push. Chicago is who we thought they were, and the Coyotes’ stats may be a bit better than they truly are. The reverse effect happened to Nashville for playing the Wings.
On a Nashville Predators Power Play
This will be the area that may determine the balance of the series. Phoenix was tops in the NHL during the playoffs, posting a 94.7% PK against Chicago. Nashville’s power play sputtered at times against Detroit, after being #1 in conversion rate during the year. If Nashville wants to take this series and not depend on finding holes in Mike Smith, which is seemingly difficult now, the power play must work and work often.
The Coyotes will depend on Doan and Daymond Langkow to spearhead their penalty kill efforts. Phoenix and Nashville don’t take many penalties, so don’t expect Doan to wear down playing PK minutes. Outside looking in, Nashville’s power play didn’t cycle well against Detroit, and Phoenix’s defensive structure has given the Preds fits in the previous years. Nashville must create more movement and mismatches, or the series will be even more of a Smith vs Rinne battle.
Verdict: Push. Weber and Suter hold the keys in this area, and the forwards must put forth a better effort against a very hot goalie.
Phoenix has FIVE guys who have played over 1000 games. Of those five, only Ray Whitney has a ring (Carolina), and Daymond Langkow has good experience with Calgary. This is a hungry team, but not a team with an absolute wealth of experience. (Raffi Torres would’ve actually been useful here). Nashville doesn’t have an embarrassment of riches in this department, but they were as a team last year. Most team members have said that they lost the Canucks series due to being complacent and content after getting out of the first round. Not what we the fans want to hear, but I appreciate the honesty.
The desperation factor exists in Nashville. With that alone there is more of a push for this year being “the year”. If Nashville plays well, they win this series. That sounds overly basic and simple, but it’s the reality. They are the better team here, and that’s not a quote we get to say much around the NHL most years. They’re also tougher to play against, and with the current line combinations thanks to the play of Gabriel Bourque and Nick Spaling, they can poke holes in a Phoenix lineup that’s a bit bruised up.
Nashville in six.
And visit Jack’s BBQ on Broadway, where there is a stuffed Coyote over the door.