Nashville Predators vs. Phoenix Coyotes Series Preview: The Wait Is Over

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 03: Mike Fisher #12 of the Nashville Predators skates with the puck against Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on November 3, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Predators defeated the Coyotes 3-0. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

After what has seemed like an interminable wait, we're finally ready to drop the puck on the Western Conference Semifinals, as the Nashville Predators tangle with the Phoenix Coyotes tonight in Game One (8:00 p.m. Central, NBC Sports).

Follow after the jump for your series preview...

Even Strength Play

NSH Offense vs. PHX Defense PHX Offense vs. NSH Defense
5-on-5
GF/60 SF/60 Shoot % GA/60 SA/60 Save %
NSH Offense 2.5 (9th) 27.4 (24th) 9.1 (3rd) 2.3 (9th) 30.5 (25th) 924 (7th) NSH Defense
PHX Defense 2.2 (7th) 31.2 (28th) 930 (2nd) 2.5 (9th) 29.8 (13th) 8.3 (15th) PHX Offense
GA/60 SA/60 Save % GF/60 SF/60 Shoot %

Between a hot-shooting team and another with a hot goalie, the goalie's performance is probably the more reliable, and Mike Smith will give the Predators fits. Of all NHL goalies with more than 1000 shots faced at even strength, Smith's .936 save percentage led the league (Pekka Rinne was 7th at .928). On the attack, the Coyotes have quite a lot in common with Nashville's depth, boasting 9 skaters with 10 or more even-strength goals, led by Radim Vrbata:


Radim Vrbata

#17 / Right Wing / Phoenix Coyotes

6-1

190

Jun 13, 1981



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG
SOG PCT
2011 - Radim Vrbata 77 35 27 62 +24 24 9 1 12 232 15.1

Much like Sergei Kostitsyn last year, Vrbata is enjoying a career-high in goal scoring due to the favors of Lady Luck (read: high shooting percentage), but he's still a legit 20-25 goal type of winger.

Nashville's top even-strength goal scorer (19 in 72 games) hasn't gotten on the board yet in the playoffs, but did a stand-up job battling Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in the opening round:


Mike Fisher

#12 / Center / Nashville Predators

6-1

208

Jun 05, 1980



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG
SOG PCT
2011 - Mike Fisher 72 24 27 51 +11 33 5 0 7 157 15.3

I can't give either team an edge here. Although Phoenix's numbers are slightly better over the course of the entire season, Nashville's significant additions since the trade deadline effectively close that gap.

Special Teams

NSH PP vs. PHX PK PHX PP vs. NSH PK
GF/60 SF/60 Shoot % GA/60 SA/60 Save %
NSH 5-on-4 7.6 (1st) 45.4 (22nd) 16.8 (1st) 6.1 (15th) 53.2 (24th) 885 (12th) NSH 4-on-5
PHX 4-on-5 4.9 (7th) 55.2 (29th) 911 (3rd) 4.4 (29th) 40.4 (29th) 10.9 (26th) PHX 5-on-4
GA/60 SA/60 Save % GF/60 SF/60 Shoot %

Here's where the Predators can press the advantage. The power play has been excellent all year long, while the penalty kill turned around mid-season after a substandard start. The Coyotes had the 3rd-fewest penalty minutes in the league after Nashville & Detroit. So going by the logic from the 1st round, we should see a ton of whistles being blown between these two teams, right?

Goaltending

Two of the league's top performers are squaring off here, in a matchup you'd have to call even. If you want to give an edge to one side or another, it's so small as to be insignificant:


Pekka Rinne

#35 / Goalie / Nashville Predators

6-5

209

Nov 03, 1982



GP MIN W L OTL GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2011 - Pekka Rinne 73 4169 43 18 8 166 2.39 2153 1987 .923 5


Mike Smith

#41 / Goalie / Phoenix Coyotes

6-4

215

Mar 22, 1982



GP MIN W L OTL GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2011 - Mike Smith 67 3903 38 18 10 144 2.21 2066 1922 .930 8

Both of these goalies stole the show in the opening round... leaving the main question - which will crack first?

Lines

Courtesy of Jordan Ellel at Five For Howling, here's a look at the recent lines for Phoenix (with the obvious caveat that they are prone to change):

Whitney - Hanzal - Vrbata

The prime line. Both the top scoring line for the team and it's defensive shut-down unit, although Tippett doesn't necessarily pair them against the other team's top line.

Boedker - Vermette - Doan

Not a line that we saw too much even though I think technically this was the announced line for both games 5 and 6. It's the line I'd play with Torres being suspended.

Korpikoski - Gordon - Pyatt

Another defensive shutdown unit that has chipped in a number of timely goals in the playoffs. Gordon and Korpi get your top penalty kill minutes among the forwards. Hanzal and Doan or Langkow and Doan generally comprise a secondary PK unit.

Chipchura - Langkow - Brule

4th unit, but probably sees more time than Nashville's 4th line. They have sneaky skills and are a good grinding group even if Brule is the only one with true finishing ability.

Miscellaneous:

Bissonnette probably won't dress unless there are injuries and the series is getting oddly physical. Pouliot has been up and down between Portland and Phoenix this year, but is probably the top "skill" player coming out of the press box. There's a host of AHL guys that it would be interesting to see play (Brett MacLean most notably), but I highly doubt that we'll see any of them unless there are serious injuries.

Defensive Pairings:

Yandle - Morris

Klesla - Aucoin/Schlemko/Stone

Rozsival - OEL

These aren't really listed by depth as they all play lots of minutes. Not sure what the injury status is on Aucoin, Klesla and Rozsival who all missed time/seemed injured during the first round series. OEL and Yandle are the dangerous offensive threats while the rest pretty much stay at home...although Tip gives them free range to pinch as needed and Klesla has been surprisingly jumping in to the play a lot.

For the power play, the prime line usually gets the first crack with OEL - Yandle patrolling the blue line, or Doan at the point depending on how Tippett is feeling. The second power play unit is a crapshoot and completely based on who Tippett feels is playing best that game. You might see the 4th line out there, you might see Vermette and Boedker. Given that the team only scores on about 13.5% of their power plays, I wouldn't worry too much.

All the d-men rotate through the PK time, with the exception of Yandle unless there's some d-men in the box already.

The Preds found a winning combination against Detroit despite not getting much scoring from Mike Fisher's line:

SK74 - Fisher - Erat

Bourque - Legwand - Radulov

AK46 - Spaling - Hornqvist

Yip - Gaustad - Halischuk/Tootoo/Smith

Who will earn the opportunity on that 4th line? That will prove to be a story to follow on a daily basis.

On the blueline, the imminent return of Hal Gill shores up a group which held their own against Detroit. Ryan Porth talked to Gill Thursday after practice:

When asked if he'll play in Game One, Gill said, "Yeah, I'd like to. I haven't talked to the coaches to make a final decision, but hopefully they want me back in."

Gill, one of the latest Predators to sport a Mohawk for the playoffs, spent most of the last two days practicing alongside Francis Bouillon, which is usually a sign of what the next game's lineup will be.

That would mean pairings of Suter/Weber, Josi/Klein, and Gill/Bouillon. If Gill's ready to go right from Game One, it gives Barry Trotz the luxury of relieving some of Ryan Suter's PK responsibilities, allowing him to place Suter in more offensively-oriented situations.

Predictions

Marc

This matchup really couldn't have worked out much better for the Preds. They have the advantage at every position, and not having home ice should help them get back into the game flow after a long break, like the coaches said. Preds keep the good times rollin'. Preds in 5.

Chris

The Nashville Predators sent the Detroit Red Wings to the golf course in 5 games with only four or five skaters playing well, and no Hal Gill. I have to think the team comes out with a few complete performances in this series, and their best punch is significantly better than the Coyotes'. Plus, Mike Smith has not been this good his entire career. Pekka Rinne has. Preds in 6, if only because every series in team history has ended at Bridgestone Arena.

George

Though the travel between Phoenix and Nashville won't be too big a factor for the Preds or the Yotes in the early part of this series, thanks to a couple days off between games 2 and 3, expect the Coyotes to pick up one apiece in each city. Hal Gill will finally find his way back into the lineup, and the Preds top lines will factor more in this series than they did against the Wings. Mike Smith will still be a factor as well, but the Preds will find a way to solve him. PREDS in 6.

Dirk

The Raffi Torres suspension could prove to be a significant loss for the Coyotes, as he's the kind of offensively opportunistic banger who can give Nashville's depth defensemen problems sometimes. Between that loss for the Coyotes up front, and the return of Hal Gill on the Preds' blueline, I think Nashville will be able to slow down the Phoenix attack. That, combined with the variety and depth of offensive weapons the Preds can bring to bear gives Phoenix too much to handle. PREDS IN 5.

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