Arizona Coyotes to face experienced Nashville Predators in postseason
Some of the things being said about the Nashville Predators are not unlike those said about the Arizona Coyotes.
Predators head coach John Hynes, speaking to reporters on Zoom from the Edmonton bubble this week, praised his team’s two goaltenders for being a formidable tandem. Coyotes assistant coach Phil Housley said Nashville’s strength is goaltending and defense. Forward Christian Fischer noted the Preds’ stars on defense.
Arizona’s defense and goaltending have been their strength for the past several years, and it was enough this year to keep them within range to qualify for the NHL’s 24-team postseason tournament that begins Saturday. The Coyotes face Nashville in Game 1 of a best-of-five series on Sunday.
“I think it’s a good matchup. I think we played them pretty well in the regular season,” Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz said. “We had two good games against them. They’re definitely a fast-paced team, they kind of like to play that north-south game like we like to play.”
Arizona was 1-1 against Nashville this year, winning 5-2 in the Coyotes’ sixth game of the season and then losing 3-2 on the road in December.
“You look at how they score their goals, the majority is from turnovers in the neutral zone,” Fischer said. “I think it’s going to come down to that. If we manage the puck well — I like how maybe bigger and physical maybe our back end are, and I think we have a couple guys up front that are, when it comes to playoffs, obviously everyone knows it’s a whole different type of game. Obviously I’m going to take us all the time, but I really like our matchup against this team.”
Predators are favored -135, Coyotes +115 to win series (Bovada)
Nashville was picked by many to get a divisional playoff spot, but its season didn’t go the way it hoped. A mediocre start of 19-15-7 was only good enough for sixth place in the Central Division, and head coach Peter Laviolette was relieved of his duties.
John Hynes, who was fired as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, was hired to replace Laviolette. The team went 16-11-7 after that and was in sixth place in the conference when the NHL season paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Preds are the sixth seed in the tournament, Arizona is the 11th.
Coyotes forward Taylor Hall played for Hynes in New Jersey.
“If I look back to training camps that I had under Hynesy, it would probably be playing fast and forechecking,” Hall said. “Sometimes, he can make some adjustments in the neutral zone with how they have to play against different teams. But he wants his guys to hunt pucks, he wants his guys to be tenacious on the forecheck and really be a quick and fast team to play against.
“I’ve told the guys that we always started pretty well in Jersey. And we’ll have to see how they come out, but I have a lot of respect for Hynesy and how he coaches. I think those guys over there like playing for him.”
The Coyotes were once in first place in the Pacific Division this season and eventually fell completely out of a playoff spot. The pandemic caused the NHL to restructure its postseason format for this season, and Arizona gets a second chance. The Coyotes are fighting for the Stanley Cup.
Even after getting Phil Kessel in the offseason and Hall in a midseason blockbuster trade, Arizona finished the regular season 23rd in the NHL in goals scored per game. The Coyotes’ leading goal-scorer was Conor Garland, whose breakout year of 22 goals was as unexpected as it was much-needed.
While offense is not the Coyotes’ strong suit, goal prevention is. The team allowed 2.61 goals per game in 2019-20, the third-best mark in the NHL behind only Dallas and Boston.
The team’s health and defensive ability seem like checked boxes going into the series against Nashville. Just add offense.
The Predators’ leading scorer was defenseman Roman Josi, who had 65 points. Behind him was forward Filip Forsberg with 48, giving Josi a 17-point lead over the next-highest point-getter on his team. That is the fifth-highest margin by which a defenseman led his team in scoring in NHL history (Housley is third on that list).
Josi, the three-time All-Star, has the third-most points in the NHL by a defenseman over the last three seasons and was a Norris Trophy (best defenseman) finalist for the 2019-20 season.
“I think we all know what kind of team they are, and they have that top six who arguably are one of the best top six forwards in the league when it comes to offense,” Fischer said. “And then you have [goaltender] Pekka Rinne and I know their other goalie [Juuse] Saros, the last two months there, he was really, really good.
“And then the D, nothing to take away from them and how good their forwards are, their top four defensemen are superstars. You have [Ryan] Ellis and Josi as your 1-2, that’s almost as good as it’s going to come.”
The top six forward group features Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, among others. Nashville had 10 players reach double-digit goals in 2020, the same number as the Coyotes. They also had only one player eclipse 20 goals (Forsberg, 21), which also was the same as the Coyotes (Garland, 22).
“They’ve got a lot of small, skilled, fast forwards,” Schmaltz said. “So I think we can try to slow them down in that way whether it’s playing a little physical or managing the puck so we’re not feeding that transition game and making sure we’re staying aware of where those offensive D-man on the ice are at all times, because they like to jump up and they’re involved quite a bit down low in the offensive zone.
“So I think if we play well defensively, I think we can capitalize on that and turn it into offense, whether we’re getting odd-man rushes or fast breaks.”
Power play: 19.2% (18th)
Penalty kill: 82.7% (5th)
Power play: 17.3% (25th)
Penalty kill: 76.1% (29th)
After coaching change:
Power play: 18.1% (20th)
Penalty kill: 79.3% (21st)
Darcy Kuemper: .928 SV%, 2.22 GAA
Antti Raanta: .921 SV%, 2.63 GAA
Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Kuemper has the highest save percentage among all NHL goalies with 30 or more games played. In second place is his teammate, Raanta.
Pekka Rinne: .895 SV%, 3.17 GAA
Juuse Saros: .914 SV%, 2.70 GAA
Saros had the second-best save percentage in the NHL (.934) after Jan. 1 of this season. Only Boston’s Tuukka Rask was better. Rinne won the Vezina Trophy two seasons ago, given to the league’s best goaltender.
“Both of those guys look very ready,” Hynes said of his two goalies. “They did a nice job, you can tell, during the pause. They kept themselves in great physical condition. I personally had the opportunity to talk with both guys. They both come back ready to play and compete, practice-wise, they are really pushing each other. It’s nice and comforting, I think, as a coach and an organization that you have two players that are ready and you have to goalies that are ready that we believe in, that our team believes in.”
— The Coyotes and the Predators have faced each other only one other time in the postseason, back in the 2012 conference semifinals. The Coyotes advanced in five games and lost to the Kings in the next round.
— The Predators still have 13 players on their team that were on Nashville when it went to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Nashville lost that series to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet was an assistant coach on that Pittsburgh team.
— Tocchet on the Predators: “There’s a few things that’s Hynesy’s done differently than Peter Laviolette. Still the same players. It’s an experienced group that’s been there before that knows how to deal with pressure. Both [Laviolette] and now Hynesy, both great coaches. They’re very structured. There’s a few things that Hynesy does different that I know we’ll have to adjust to, but it’s a really good opponent for us. We’re going to have to be on our game to beat those guys.”
— Coyotes assistant coach Phil Housley was an assistant coach with the Predators for four seasons, including in 2017 when they reached the Stanley Cup Final.
— Housley on the Predators: “They’re a very disciplined hockey team. The strength of their team is their goaltending and their defense right now. Josi, Ellis and [defenseman Mattias] Ekholm, world-class players. A lot of the things that they generate offensively start from their back end. But they’re very well-balanced up front. I believe they have six, seven, eight centermen, some guys are playing on the wing. They’re very strong down the middle. They’re a top team in the faceoff circle.
“They’re a very well-balanced attack. We stack up well against this team. I think we can play a speed game. I think we can get on the forecheck and try to disrupt their D and make it tough and difficult throughout the series where we can try to wear them down. We have a lot of respect for them, but our team, when they’re playing at their best and we’re playing fast and we’re on top of teams, we’re very difficult to play against.”