The brief training camp is almost over as the Nashville Predators get ready to face the defensive-minded Arizona Coyotes in the qualifying round.
A true test in the qualifying round matchup between the Nashville Predators and the Arizona Coyotes is going to depend on two very talented defensive fronts.
It’s pretty simple when analyzing this matchup and deciding who has the edge in the series. If it’s the Coyotes, they’re going to rely heavily on their defense which is among the NHL’s best in goals given up per game (2.61) and also makes it hard on teams to score with a man advantage.
The Predators have always had strong defensive cores in their recent playoff runs, but this past season felt different. The loss of Ryan Ellis definitely hurt during the Winter Classic, and there wasn’t much stability aside from Roman Josi at the very top.
A high-scoring series shouldn’t be expected between these two teams who have plenty of defensive stars, and some high quality goaltending to go with it. But if the Predators lapse on the defensive side of things like they did for much of the regular season, then things will go sour quickly.
Predators have to excel defensively
There’s a lot of pressure on the top two defensive pairings of the Predators. This is Josi, Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro. The third pairing is full of uncertainty, which is going to put more pressure on the top four to play well.
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Luckily, the potential is there for the top two pairings to play very well and hold in check a pretty ordinary Coyotes offense that doesn’t put up a lot of goals. Arizona was 23rd in the NHL in goals per game at 2.71, while the Predators were 16th at 3.07 goals per game.
Furthermore, the top two defensive pairings for the Predators have to stay out of the penalty box as they’re also their best penalty killers. The Predators penalty kill was horrendous over the regular season, while the Arizona power play was below average as well.
The more I look at this matchup, the more I tend to believe that the Predators can really make quick work of the Coyotes if Josi and company play up to their talent levels. They should be able to hold the Coytoes below three goals per game and give the Predators a really strong chance to win this series in four games or less.
Fabbro is the x-factor for the Predators defensively. Is he ready to take on a bigger role in playoff hockey? All of the potential is there, and he’s shown glimpses of turning into a sturdy defenseman on the second line.
The bottom pairing still has to be sorted out, but some combination of Korbinian Holzer, Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber and Jarred Tinordi will probably happen. This is the area that I don’t have much confidence in to produce any better results than they did in the regular season.
The Predators do have options with their expanded roster by putting in Alexandre Carrier, Jeremy Davies or Steven Santini to inject some energy into the third pairing. Carrier is the choice here with Hamhuis, but it’s a tough call either way to try to find something that will improve this area of the roster.
No one can really argue over the forwards of both teams. The Predators have more depth, more veteran playoff experience and more elite offensive scoring talent than the Coyotes.
It’s defensively where the Coyotes can take over the series and get past the Predators as slight underdogs.
Defensively the Coyotes have the personnel put a stranglehold on this series and make it ugly to watch unless you love grind-it-out games with not a lot of scoring. This is how the Coyotes are going to have to win this series.
The Coyotes already have the slight edge in goaltending. If they follow that up with formidable defensive play in front of either Darcy Kuemper or Antti Raanta then they have a good chance of eliminating the Predators.
Arizona’s defensemen don’t put up a ton of flashy offensive numbers like the Predators do, but they’re still a very strong defensive team that make it hard on the opposition to create offensive scoring chances.
If you’re a Predators fan, you have to be worried about having to win games in 2-1 fashion considering that the penalty kills and power play has been so untrustworthy. The Coyotes get the advantage if it becomes a low-scoring series.
Who has the advantage defensively?
I have it as close to a toss up as you can get, but I’m narrowly going with the Predators thanks to their offensive abilities. They should have the Norris Trophy winner leading the way with Josi, and Ellis is full healthy and a top-20 defenseman as well.
I’m also putting restored confidence in Ekholm and Fabbro to be strong forces on the penalty kill and generating their own offensive chances at times.
Most importantly, the Predators defense is going to come out much more focused and reignited after a new training camp to make adjustments.
The bottom defensive pairings for both teams don’t offer much and shouldn’t have a huge impact on the series. But the Predators have to play better in front of their goaltenders to match Arizona, and I think they’ll do that thanks to a training camp period to make the necessary adjustments and come back refreshed.
This has all the makings of being a series showcased by physical play, penalty killing and steady goaltending. That should keep the scoring rather low, but I like the Predators defense led by stars at the top to outshine what the Coyotes have.
It’s going to take the full five games, but the Predators top defensemen led by Josi and Ellis are going to outshine that of what Arizona has.