The Phoenix Coyotes won their first playoff series ever in Round 1, knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. Their prize? A date with the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference Semifinals.
A different matchup here, the Predators are offensively equipped but also defensively responsible. After knocking off the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville looks poised to make a deep run, and the Preds will try to use their collective postseason experience to their advantage against Phoenix. Between the intriguing goaltending matchup and the battle for defensive superiority, this series will turn out to be a lot more exciting than expected.
You may not know many of the names on the Phoenix roster, but they are capable of giving goalie Mike Smith some support when needed. Mikkel Boedker came up huge later in the previous series, scoring game-winning goals in two straight overtime games, while two-way forward Antoine Vermette leads the team with four goals and five points. Defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson have also stepped in offensively.
Nashville certainly has more than enough to match offensively, though. Alexander Radulov has only one goal so far in the postseason, but has contributed with four assists. The Predators are also armed with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter who have helped run the Nashville offense all regular season. With Hal Gill likely returning from injury in this series and the improvement from the rest of the defense, look for Weber and Suter to take more charge in scoring. The Preds have more weapons and command when it comes to scoring goals.
While Gill was out with a lower-body injury last series, the Predators held off the Wings with the help of their top pairing of Weber and Suter. They were also pleasantly surprised by some solid play from shot-blocking master Kevin Klein to support their strong goaltending. Gill's return adds depth to the defensive corps and can allow Weber and Suter to take more of a two-way role in this series.
The Coyotes have a crew on defense that's quite experienced with the likes of Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin, Rostislav Klesla and Michal Rozsival, while Yandle and the young Ekman-Larsson have stood out on both ends of the ice. They all do their job in the back end; however, they're a bit less physical than Nashville's blueline, and with the aggressive forwards the Predators have, it might not be the most ideal matchup.
Phoenix leads all playoff teams with a 94.7 percent penalty-killing efficiency. Granted, it was against the Blackhawks, who have had troubles on the power play all year long, but still, impressive. The Coyotes' killing efficiency is only an extension of their strong play down a man from the season. With the number of two-way forwards on their squad and Mike Smith in goal, it's not too surprising.
Phoenix will have to continue its penalty killing prowess before Nashville finds its power play game again. Despite leading the league during the regular season with the man-advantage, the Predators struggled significantly against the Red Wings to produce a power-play goal, scoring only twice in the series. However, if the Preds wake up on the power play, it could give them a supreme edge in this series, bumping up their ability to work offensively.
Nashville faced a lot of penalties last series, and with that considered, killing at 82.6 percent isn't too bad -- although the Wings came into the playoffs struggling mightily with their own man-advantage until the Preds gave them their chances. With the Coyotes looking to get the upper-hand early, they may be able to sneak up in their offensive mismatch and keep things close in this manner.
The common theme of all the teams in the Western Conference is that they all pack strong goaltending. In the case of the Predators, they have Pekka Rinne, one of the Vezina trophy candidates. Last series, Rinne posted a 1.81 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. He wasn't the deciding factor against the Detroit Red Wings, but he certainly was key in helping the Preds advance.
The Coyotes, however, advanced on the good graces of Mike Smith's goaltending. Smith also had a 1.81 goals-against average, but was six points better on his save percentage than Rinne. The way he has played under pressure, facing the second most shots of all playoff goalies this postseason, he will need to be prepared to face far fewer shots, as Nashville shot the fewest of all teams so far. Seeing as Smith stole the series from Chicago in the first round, I don't doubt his ability to do so.
PREDATORS WILL WIN IF ... They use their offensive talent to set the tone. They will need to score early in games and maintain pressure on Smith to keep the puck out of their own end. It would be even better for Nashville if they benefitted from their power play. With how strong Smith has been in net, anything they can use as an advantage in offense must be in their gameplan.
COYOTES WILL WIN IF ... They stay disciplined. That means avoiding unnecessary and untimely penalties and sticking to their gameplan, avoiding turnovers. The last thing the Coyotes need is to go down two goals and have to fight to tie the game, considering this is a much better team defensively and in goal than their previous opponent. It would also be in Phoenix's best interest then to score early. Setting the tone not only offsets the Preds, but keeps the Coyotes in check to stick to that gameplan.