Playoff Preview: Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Nashville Predators (4)
Two defensive-minded, goaltender-driven teams will go head-to-head in this Western Conference Semifinal. Nashville is led by Vezina Trophy-nominee Pekka Rinne, while Phoenix relies heavily on stalwart netminder Mike Smith, who allowed only 12 goals on 241 shots it the first round of the playoffs. One thing’s for certain: at the end of this series, one of these teams will advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever. That’s right; neither the Phoenix Coyotes nor the Nashville Predators have ever been the Conference Finals. As the NHL ad campaign says: “History will be made”.
Statistical Leaders (Playoffs)
Goals: Antoine Vermette (4)
Points: Antoine Vermette (5), Keith Yandle (5)
Goaltending: Mike Smith (6 starts, 4 wins, 1.81 GAA, .950 Save %)
Goals: Gabriel Bourque (3)
Points: Alexander Radulov (5)
Goaltending: Pekke Rinne (5 starts, 4 wins, 1.81 GAA, .945 Save %)
2011-12 Head-to-head Matchup: The Predators and the Coyotes met four times in the regular season, and the season series could not have been more even. Each team scored twelve goals, and each team won two of the four games they played against each other.
Offense: This is not either team’s strong suit. Both squads rely on a balanced approach, getting goals from all four lines. Phoenix has more goals per game (2.83) than Nashville does this postseason (2.60), but Phoenix did have the virtue of shooting against Chicago goalie Corey Crawford in the first round, whereas Nashville had to go up against Detroit’s All-Star netminder Jimmy Howard. Still, it’s tough to judge on just a five or six game sample size (Phoenix played six games in the first round; Nashville played five). Likewise, Nashville had the better offense in the regular season (2.92 goals/game, as compared to Phoenix’s 2.56), but that hasn’t quite translated into postseason proficiency. Both teams are fairly evenly matched in this category; neither Nashville nor Phoenix has a clear edge on offense.
Defense: Both teams gave up a high volume of shots in the regular season, and there were only 70 shots total separating each team’s aggregate in that category (Nashville surrendered 2,523; Phoenix 2,593). However, Nashville (32 shots allowed/game) did prove to be far better in this category in the post season, as they allowed eight fewer shot per game (on average) in the first round than Phoenix (40 shots allowed/game). Nashville’s defensive corps, which features the likes of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Kevin Klein, will be getting a boost with the return of Hall Gill, who will be coming back from an injury. Phoenix has a good group of their own on the blueline with guys like Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, Oliver Ekmann-Larson and Michael Roszival. Again, there is no clear advantage here, but Phoenix’s tendency to give up a high volume of shots does put them at a small disadvantage.
Advantage: Nashville (slight)
Goaltending: This matchup is dead even. Both Mike Smith and Pekka Rinne have been as phenomenal in the playoffs as they were in the regular season. Their stats are almost identical (4 wins apiece, 1.81 GAA for both, Smith has a .950 save % compared to Rinne’s .945). Both goalies are great and will keep their teams in games this series.
Special Teams: This is where Phoenix has shone through in the postseason. They’ve got the top penalty-killing unit so far in the playoffs (94%), and have the fifth-best powerplay (21%). Likewise, Nashville has converted a mere 9.1% of their extra-man opportunities and killed off only 84.2% of their own penalties. Again, this is only a small sample size, and Nashville did have the top power-play unit in the regular season. But Phoenix’s ability to execute on both sides of the special teams game has been better so far this posteason, even if it has only been through six games, so they do have a small advantage.
Advantage: Phoenix (slight)
Prediction: This is going to be an exceptionally close series, given how well each team is at limiting the opposing team’s scoring. These two teams are practically mirror images of each other, given their balanced scoring approach, solid defense and incredible goaltending. Home-ice advantage won’t mean a thing either, as both teams won every road playoff game they had in the first round. What it comes down to, of all things, may be fatigue. Phoenix played six games, five of which went into overtime, in the first round. Nashville won their series in only five games, none of which went into extra time. The Predators have been resting for the better part of a week, and should be better equipped to handle the kind of long, grinding series that this is bound to be.
Forecast: Nashville in six