#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #4 Nashville Predators
In the first round, I went 7 for 8 in predictions. The only team match up that I got incorrect was Los Angeles vs. Vancouver and while it is considered an upset to many, I am not surprised. Maybe it’s because the Kings are starting to play a little bit more like the team that we thought that they would be prior to the start of the season or maybe it’s because the Canucks were without Daniel Sedin. Either way, I was rooting for the Kings the whole way in that series and I am glad that they got through to the second round. Now onto the match up at hand.
I don’t know if it’s because I moved into the Phoenix market, thus becoming a fan of the team or what, but this Coyotes team seems to play a lot harder and a lot tougher than I can ever remember them playing. This is a team without a true superstar. They don’t have a Claude Giroux. They don’t have Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. They don’t even have a Corey Perry or Bobby Ryan. Some people might argue that by saying that they have Vrbata and Doan, a 30 goal scorer and a respectable veteran talent respectively, but they’re not quite the same kind of people. Vrbata’s 30-goal year could possibly be the quietest 30-goal year for any player in the NHL. To be honest, I am not sure that I would have known that he had 30 goals if I weren’t living here, and as for Doan, I have always known that he was a star. I have always known that he was talented and a leader by nature, but that doesn’t quite put him in that “Super Star” role. Their defense shines with young stars like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larson, but being in the Phoenix market means that they are significantly underrated and sometimes, undervalued. But in the playoffs, the story isn’t these players. It’s the depth chipping in. It’s Brule and Boedker and Vermette. It’s everyone fulfilling their roles and playing a team game, as a team.
And then there is the man that won them the Chicago Blackhawks series, Mike Smith, but again, not quite a super star. He is simply a man that has thrived in a defensive system. Don’t get me wrong. He has outplayed and out shined everyone’s wildest expectations. After the series with the Hawks was over, I watched an interview with Jonathon Toews where he said, “I don’t know what else we could have done.” And it was true. For anyone that missed the series, particularly the last game, you would see that there was nothing that they could have done. Mike Smith had an answer every shot and if he plays like that in this series, the Predators are going to be in for a very, very long series.
On the Predators side of the fence, they have four stars in particular that are making all of the difference. Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne and Alexander Radulov. I would argue that Radulov isn’t living up to his expectations, particularly scoring, but he’s making his way around. He had 5 points in the series against the Red Wings, but only one of them was a goal and I am sure that’s something that he is looking to change. Like the Coyotes, the Predators have had their production come from their depth. They are another deep team that plays with a defense first mindset. They put you on the boards and outwork you and then as soon as you make one, tiny mistake, they pounce. And the thing with the Predators this post-season is that when they pounce, they don’t miss.
They took the Detroit Redwings down in 5 games and a lot of that was the Redwings beating themselves. Again, I’m not saying that the Predators didn’t outplay and out hustle the Wnigs, because they did a lot of the time, but the real difference maker was Rinne. Like the Hawks in Phoenix, the Wings could not solve their opponent’s goaltending and that’s the story in the West right now. Each series was stolen by stellar goaltending. I remember a few years ago, when the Hawks and the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup with mediocre netminders in Bouche/Leighton and Niemmi. Everyone asked, is the age of the superstar goaltender over? Is there no longer a need for the Lundqvists and the Haseks? I think that the Western Conference answers that question for you.
During the regular season, this series was split 2-2, with one of the Predators wins going to a shootout. So, in that sense, you have to give the edge to Phoenix, but at the same time, those games were earlier on in the season, and these are different teams. Mike Smith didn’t turn into this Mike Smith until the second half of the season and the Predators have acquired a significant amount of depth at the trade deadline and with Radulov returning from Russia. So, this series really is anyone’s game.
The Predators are a dangerous, dangerous team and I knew that coming into the playoffs. I knew that when the Wings drew them. It was the one team in the Conference that I wanted no part of, but alas, that’s generally how things work. The thing is, I think that the Coyotes match up much better against the Predators than the Redwings ever could. The defensive first mindset on both ends is sure to make this series a very, very close one. I imagine that it will look very much like a soccer series, with many 1 or 2 goal games. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that either team is sneaking that many goals behind Rinne and Smith.
I think that this series could go either way. I realize that every series can go either way, but I think that there is just so much going on here. The defensive systems and the scoring depth are just so prevalent in this series, but at the end of the day, my gut tells me it’s the Coyotes. I know that sounds biased because I live out here, but this team really is showing signs of something special. They are accomplishing feats that no one ever thought that they would be capable of and I think that by knocking out the former Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, they are showing that. The Blackhawks were one of the top teams in scoring this year in the NHL and the Coyotes shut them down, so I am interested to see where this series goes.
Prediction: Coyotes in 7.