I continue my analysis of the 2nd round Stanley Cup playoff series by analyzing the playoff series between the Nashville Predators and the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Phoenix Coyotes won their opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, Game 6 of which was the only game which didn’t go into overtime. The Predators dispatched of the great Detroit Red Wings in five games, Game 4 of which was only game which was decided by more than one goal and all games of which were decided in regulation.
The Phoenix Coyotes continued their success of the regular season by utilizing the same formula of stingy defense, stellar goaltending and timely scoring during their first-round playoff series, shutting down the likes of Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, both of whom were held to registering a single point each in the six-game series. Mike Smith proved to be the difference in the series, including enduring being run over by Andrew Shaw in Game 2 after retrieving the puck behind his own net. Smith stifled the Blackhawks by posting a Goals Against Average (GAA) of 1.81 and a stellar Save Percentage (Save%) of .950.
But the Coyotes series victory was not without controversy as Raffi Torres was suspended for 25 games for an illegal head-shot after launching into a defenseless Marian Hossa in Game 3 of the playoff series. Losing an elite scorer like Hossa proved to affect the outcome of the series, particularly in such a tightly-contested series and particularly in losing Hossa in power play situations where he finished tied for 8th in the NHL in power play tallies.
The Nashville Predators also continued their success of the regular season by utilizing the same formula of stingy defense, stellar goaltending and timely scoring during their first-round playoff series, shutting down the likes of Niklas Lidstrom and Todd Bertuzzi who were held pointless in the five-game series. Pekka Rinne also proved to be the difference in the series, posting an identical (to Mike Smith) Goals Against Average (GAA) of 1.81 and a nearly identical Save Percentage (Save%) of .944.
Truth be told, while the Predators-Red Wings series was a tightly-contested affair and while Rinne was spectacular, the Predators succeeded in making the NHL’s modern day dynasty look ineffective and particularly old.
This series has all the makings of a classic battle of stingy defenses and stellar goaltending as well as a chess game of two of the NHL’s best head coaches in Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz.
I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series. I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out – who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.
Here’s the Rundown:
The Predators, a team who have never historically been associated with having a prolific offense or offensive firepower, finished tied for 6th in the NHL in scoring during the regular season with 2.79 goals/game. And while they don’t possess a cadre of elite scoring forwards like the Blackhawks possessed, they do possess a balanced scoring attack, paced by Martin Erat, David Legwand and Mike Fisher all of whom registered more than 50 points during the regular season. But the Predators present a unique challenge to the Coyotes with their offensive prowess from their blueline with perhaps the NHL’s premier 1st defensive pairing in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, both of whom scored more than 46 points and 30 assists.
In their 1st round playoff series, the Predators were buoyed by the return of elite winger Alexander Radulov who returned to the Predators after his season ended in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Radulov scored five points in the five-game series while Legwand and Gabriel Bourque contributed four points during the series.
On the other hand, the Coyotes aren’t exactly considered an offensive juggernaut as the Preds finished 15th in goals/game with 2.51 goals/game. They are lead by the ageless wonder, “The Wizard” Ray Whitney. The 39-year old winger registered 77 points on 53 assists which ranked him 4th in assists in the NHL regular season. After Whitney, their 2nd leading scorer is sniper Radim Vrbata who tallied a career-best 35 goals to go along with 27 assists. From the blueline, elite defenseman Keith Yandle scored 43 points on 32 assists and Oliver Ekman-Larsson registered 32 points with 13 goals which ranked 4th among NHL defensemen in goals scored.
In their 1st round playoff series, the Coyotes were paced by Antoine Vermette and Yandle, both of whom scored five points in their opening-round series with Vermette posting four goals.
The Predators defensive corps are a stingy bunch with their elite first defensive pairing of Weber and Suter, but they also acquired shot-blocking specialist Hal Gill from the Montreal Canadiens to provide Stanley Cup playoff experience and to assist their elite defensive corps in shutting down opponents offensive attacks. The Predators could be one of the best teams in buying into their coach Barry Trotz’s defense-first approach as the Predators finished in the 9th position in the NHL’s rankings for the fewest goals allowed (GA) having given up only 2.47 goals/game. This stinginess was further cemented in their 1st round series against the Detroit Red Wings, limiting the prolific Red Wings to less than 2 goals per game.
The Coyotes defensive corps are also a stingy bunch with stay at home defensive stalwarts such as Rusty Klesla, Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival providing a great deal of shot-blocking support for Mike Smith. However, it is Dave Tippett’s approach to the game with an ‘all in’ philosophy that has landed the Coyotes in the 5th position in the NHL’s rankings for the fewest goals allowed (GA), having given up a stingy 2.32 goals/game. This stinginess was further cemented in their 1st round series against the Blackhawks, stifling one of the NHL’s elite scoring teams to less than 2 goals per game.
As both are amongst the NHL’s best in committing playing defense, in assessing to which team the advantage goes…
To assess each teams overall special teams play, the difference lies with each respective team’s power play, where the Predators led the NHL in power play efficiency with a prolific 21.6% efficiency rate. The Coyotes struggled on the man advantage during the regular season, finishing tied for 30th (last) on their power play conversion rate with a paltry 13.5% success rate. However, in their respective 1st round series, the Coyotes posted a 21.1% efficiency rate whereas the Predators struggled on the man advantage with a 9.1% conversion rate.
Regarding the Penalty Kill, the differences between the teams were slight during the regular season. The Coyotes ranked 8th in the NHL with a stout 85.5% kill rate and the Predators finished 10th with an 83.6% kill rate. In the respective 1st round series, the Coyotes killed off penalties at an astounding 94.7% rate while the Predators remained solid on the penalty kill with an 82.6% kill rate.
So, when assessing the overall advantage in Special Teams…
Advantage: Predators (slight)
For purists of elite goaltending, this playoff series match-up should prove to be Xanadu. Both teams possess one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders, the Coyotes with Vezina Trophy candidate Mike Smith and the Predators with elite goaltender Pekka Rinne.
Smith finished 5th in Goals Against Average (GAA) with a 2.21 GAA and posted a Save Percentage (Save%) of .930 which ranked him tied for 3rd in the NHL regular season statistics. Rinne overcame an unusually bad start to his regular season to finish 11th in Goals Against Average (GAA) with a 2.39 GAA and posted a Save Percentage (Save%) of .923 which ranked him tied for 6th in the NHL regular season statistics.
In their respective 1st round series, both goalies posted nearly identical stats, with both Smith and Rinne posting identical GAAs of 1.81 and nearly identical Save%s of .950 for Smith and .944 for Rinne.
When assessing to whom the goaltending advantage goes, this one’s too close to call…
Both teams have been historically saddled with an inability to get past their 1st round series, however, both teams appeared to have erased the ghosts of playoff disappointments past by posting impressive 1st round series victories.
Adding to the series intrigue is whether this will be the last time the Coyotes play in Phoenix should they be relocated to another NHL market so this 2nd round series could be a fond farewell to one of the most surprising turnarounds over the past three seasons save for the lack of attendance that has plagued the organization’s financial viability.
For the Predators, having advanced to the 2nd round of the playoffs for the 2nd consecutive season, something they’d never previously done in their 14-year history, winning this series could serve notice that the Predators have arrived as one of the elite NHL teams, one who could seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup title.
While the Coyotes’ faithful did come out in droves to the Jobing.com arena for their 1st round playoff series, the Predators’ Bridgestone arena has become one of the most raucous venues, particularly in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So, in assessing the X-Factor, the advantage goes to…
The Coyotes ability to thrive in the face of unusual and daunting obstacles is something to be proud of, but those obstacles have also provided a ‘what do we have to lose’ mindset, going forward. For the Predators, they have already slain the stigma of not being able to move past the 1st round, plus they have dispensed of their hated Central Division rival, the Detroit Red Wings. That Predators’ swagger should prove to be the difference in the series. Both teams can clamp down their opponents offenses with stellar defense and goaltending, so expect a low-scoring series, at least on the surface.
Given all those variables, here’s the guess:
Predators in Six Games