Today marks the end of my series looking back at the Nashville Predators’ 2011-12 season. I’ve relived all the highs, now it’s time for the lowest low: the second-round playoff series that ended hockey season in Nashville.
Nashville finished with the third-best record in the Western Conference, behind only Vancouver and St. Louis. But the quirks of the NHL’s playoff seeding system dictated that the Coyotes, champions of a mediocre Pacific Division, be given the home-ice advantage. Instead of resting for a week at home before playing the first two games without travel, the Preds – favored in a playoff series for perhaps the first time in franchise history – hit the road to Arizona.
Nashville Predators 2011-12 Year In Review (In Review), Part 4: A Dogfight in Phoenix
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
NASHVILLE (48-26-8) VS PHOENIX (42-27-13)
Not many teams in the NHL are as alike as Nashville and Phoenix. Both teams rely on strong goaltending and defense; both score by committee; and both are run by highly respected coaches. Nashville’s games against Phoenix during the regular season came in two varieties – barn-burners and goalie duels – and that pattern held true throughout a hard-fought, five-game series.
GAME ONE – Glendale, AZ – April 27
PHOENIX 4, NASHVILLE 3 (OT)
After feeling the ecstasy of being dragged to victory by their goalie in the first round against Detroit, the Preds got a taste of their own medicine in Round 2. Mike Smith stood on his head when it counted in Game 1, stopping 39 of 42 shots to deliver a victory to the home crowd at Jobing.com Arena.
The game was like a battle between two heavyweight fighters; whenever one struck a blow, the other responded in turn. Radim Vrbata’s power-play marker in the opening frame was matched by Brandon Yip. Rostislav Klesla, a grizzled veteran of matchups with the Nashville Predators after 10 seasons in Columbus, gave the Coyotes the lead in the second, only to have Andrei Kostitsyn knot the game back up 8 minutes later.
After Mikkel Boedker scored at 16:27 of the second Nashville was up against the ropes, but the Preds threw everything they could at Smith in an effort to tie the game. They outshot Phoenix 16-1 in the third period and finally broke through when Martin Erat scored on the power play at 14:57.
The real key to the game was faceoffs. Phoenix won 46 of 78 in the game, and Paul Gaustad (at 69 percent) was the only Predator to win more than half his draws. At 14:04 of overtime, Martin Hanzal won the most important faceoff of the game in Nashville’s zone and dished the puck to Ray Whitney for the game-winner.
GAME TWO – Glendale, AZ – April 29
PHOENIX 5, NASHVILLE 3
Nashville looked good while losing Game 1. In Game 2 they looked worse and managed the same result. The Coyotes outshot the Preds 39-33 and took the lead for good just 3:47 into the second period, answering everything Nashville could throw at them from that point onward.
The first period of the game was much what fans expected, as the two teams traded one goal each. But after Phoenix rattled off two goals in the first 7 minutes of the second period, the Predators had to play from behind for the rest of the night.
They didn’t give up, but Phoenix was in no mood to give any quarter. Nashville crawled back into the game on Patric Hornqvist’s power-play goal at 11:20 of the second, but Taylor Pyatt beat Pekka Rinne with a wrister 30 seconds later to extend the lead back to two goals. The third period scoring was nearly identical: Ryan Suter scored on a power play just 53 seconds into the period, but Shane Doan pushed Phoenix back out front by a pair at 3:36.
Pekka Rinne’s play stood out, though not for the usual reasons. He stopped just 34 of 39 shots and took the loss as Nashville fell behind 2-0 in the series.
GAME THREE – Nashville, TN – May 2
NASHVILLE 2, PHOENIX 0
Facing internal struggles and the prospect of going down 3-0 in their own building, Nashville managed a win in Game 3 by returning to its most basic game plan: putting the team on Pekka Rinne’s back. Rinne stopped all 32 shots he faced before the sellout crowd at Bridgestone Arena.
Nashville was missing two of its biggest point producers, Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov, after an incident before Game 2 in Phoenix where the two were caught away from the hotel for a night of drinking. Both were suspended for Game 3 by the team.
Despite the two forwards’ absence – or quite possibly because of it – Nashville turned up the heat on the Coyotes in Game 3. Still, it took miscues from Phoenix for Nashville to get the win. David Legwand’s first-period goal came after Mike Smith, normally a slick puck handler, made a blind pass that Gabriel Bourque picked off and dished to Legwand in front of the net. Just over a minute later, Martin Erat forced a turnover and found Sergei Kostitsyn in front of the net. Never one to shoot when he can pass, even at the most inopportune times, Sergei dished to Mike Fisher, whose stick somehow managed to deflect the ill-advised dish past Smith for a 2-0 Nashville lead.
After that the Preds played much tighter defense than they had in Games 1 and 2. The combined nine goals were put behind them as Pekka Rinne rose to the occasion, and the series was one game away from being even for the first time since it began.
GAME FOUR – Nashville, TN – May 4
PHOENIX 1, NASHVILLE 0
Before Game 3, Coach Barry Trotz had told the media he would stick with the same lineup in the next game if his team were to win without Radulov and Kostitsyn. “It’s very hard to change [the lineup] if everybody is committed like they were,” he said. “I think it’s a privilege to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to play for the Cup, and those guys took advantage of the privilege of playing. I think that’s the sacred part of the playoffs.”
That “sacred part” might have end up costing Nashville its best chance at getting back in the series. With its steady point-producing late-season acquisitions out as healthy scratches, the Predators faltered under assault from a feisty Coyotes defense that avoided making the kinds of mistakes that had allowed Nashville to win Game 3. Particularly brutal was Nashville’s 0-for-3 performance on the power play, extending its home-ice drought on the man-advantage to 23 consecutive attempts. With so much pressure on the Preds, a lone goal from Coyotes captain Shane Doan in the first period was enough to win the game.
The final result wasn’t all due to failure on Nashville’s part. Patric Hornqvist hit a post in the second period, and another apparent goal was waved off when the referee said he’d intended to blow his whistle before the puck crossed the goal line. But Mike Smith played another fine game in net for Phoenix, stopping all 25 shots he faced in the hostile environment of a sold-out Bridgestone Arena, and the Phoenix defensive corps did their best to make sure most of those shots came from the outside. That was enough for the Coyotes to take a 3-1 series lead back to Arizona.
GAME FIVE – Glendale, AZ – May 7
PHOENIX 2, NASHVILLE 1
Game 5 was one of the more frustrating games in recent memory for Preds fans. With the dark cloud of Vodkagate still hanging over the team and the prospect of elimination on everyone’s minds, Nashville was once again matched – and eventually bested – by a team playing the same kind of game that has been instrumental to its own success.
The Coyotes’ tenacity paid off in spades in Game 5. Both of the team’s goals came in the second period. The first came on an extended stay in the Nashville zone, with Pekka Rinne beaten by Derek Morris from the outside amidst chaos; the second by Kyle Chipchura, and again from the outside. That gave Phoenix the kind of lead they had often struggled with to lock down in the past, but this time the Coyotes came through. Though Colin Wilson was able to beat Mike Smith at 14:01 of the third, Nashville couldn’t find the equalizer it needed to extend its season by one more game.
Both Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn were non-factors in Game 5, totaling just 3 shots between them in a combined 34 minutes of ice time. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was both men’s final game in a Nashville Predators sweater. Ryan Suter and Francis Bouillon also played their final minutes for Nashville in this game. Phoenix went on to lose to Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals. Nashville and its fans were left – and have been left ever since, thanks to the lockout – with nothing more than wondering about what might have been and looking forward to what might someday be.