Nashville Predators: Battle of Goaltenders Looms Large in Arizona Series

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper #35 of the Arizona Coyotes protects the net as Austin Watson #51 of the Nashville Predators (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Goaltender Darcy Kuemper #35 of the Arizona Coyotes protects the net as Austin Watson #51 of the Nashville Predators (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Nashville Predators have some distinct advantages on paper over the Arizona Coyotes, but in net there’s a lot more uncertainty.

With hockey getting closer and closer to returning, it’s time to start analyzing the first opponent for the Nashville Predators as they’ll face the Arizona Coyotes on August 2 in the quest for their first Stanley Cup.

This will mark the first game for the Predators since March 10 when they defeated the Montreal Canadiens and seized the final wildcard spot, which gives them the No.6 seed in the 24-team playoff format.

A big reason why the Predators were riding a hot streak was due to more reliable play in net from Juuse Saros, and more defensively sound hockey in front of the net as well.

The NHL has announced that the teams in the qualifying round will get credit in the record books for making the postseason and amassing postseason stats.

Turning a disadvantage into an advantage

With this all in mind, it’s time to really start looking at the Arizona Coyotes and what challenges they’ll bring to the Predators. The biggest one by far is their sturdy goaltending duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

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The Predators have a solid duo of their own with Pekka Rinne and Saros, but there’s no questioning that the Coyotes have the more trustworthy duo in net.

Both Kuemper and Raanta had regular season save percentages over 92, with Raanta appearing in four more games than Kuemper. Their numbers are very similar, and both equally impressive.

In this matchup you have two teams that have to make a tough decision on which goaltender they want to start respectively in Game 1 of a best-of-five series. There’s very little room for error in such a short series, and going with the wrong goaltender as your starter in Game 1 could be cataclysmic.

This is a major area where I have the Coyotes with the slight edge over the Predators, and it’s widely considered the most important area in playoff hockey. This doesn’t bode well for the Predators, and makes the decision between Rinne or Saros all the more important.

With this in mind, I’m gradually leaning away from Saros and more towards Rinne as the Game 1 starter. I want the starter to be a guy who has loads of experience in high-pressure playoff situations, and Rinne has that unequivocally over Saros.

The last time these two teams met was back on December 23, which was a 3-2 Predators win. Raanta gave up three goals on 41 Nashville shots.

The only other meeting was back in October when the Coyotes blasted the Predators 5-2, and Kuemper started that game and finished with 23 saves on 25 shots faced. He didn’t have to be particularly sharp in that game for Arizona to get the win.

The key to the series

Overall the Predators are the more talented team with more star power and better offensive skills to get hot at the right time. The problem is that outstanding goaltending can neutralize all of that firepower, and Arizona has that with both of their potential starters.

Can the Predators match that with Rinne or Saros? That’s why this is the key area that makes me pump the brakes on pegging the Predators as a safe bet to advance past the qualifying round.

However, if the Predators choose to go with Rinne and he comes back refreshed and ready to be classic Pekka Rinne, then the Predators should be able to put up enough offensive production to outmatch a much more average offensive attack from Arizona.

Furthermore, the Predators can’t waste away power play opportunities. It’s going to be difficult to score on Arizona at even strength. They’re a very disciplined and rugged defensive team. They’re top-five in penalty killing, while also serving the fewest amount of penalty minutes in the NHL.

So in other words, the Predators have to take advantage of possibly the very few power play opportunities they’re going to get. You can’t hang your goaltender out to dry by not giving them goal support and not capitalizing with the man advantage.

The result of this qualifying series between Nashville and Arizona will largely come down to making the right decision on a Game 1 starter from both teams. This is an area the Predators have to turn a perceived disadvantage into a distinct advantage once the puck is officially dropped.

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No exact broadcast times have been released, but the scheduled dates of each game has been released and you can check it out right here. There will be a back-to-back situation for Games 2 and 3.