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Coyotes can’t take series lead for granted as Predators face elimination

Nashville Predators' Ryan Johansen (92) crashes into Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper (35) during first period NHL qualifying round game action in Edmonton, on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Up two games to one, the Arizona Coyotes are in a desirable position: They need to beat the Nashville Predators one time in the next two outings to advance out of the qualifiers and into the first round.

But that’s not the way the Coyotes can think. They need to match the level of desperation that the Predators have, head coach Rick Tocchet said to media over Zoom Thursday.

“Being up 2-1, it’s like, ‘Well, we make a mistake it doesn’t matter, we still have the next game’ – but that’s just a dangerous mindset,” Tocchet said. “The mindset has to be the same whether you’re facing elimination or whether you’re trying to close a series out.”

After starting out the qualifying round with a 4-3 win, the Coyotes fell to the Predators 4-2 on Tuesday. They bounced back Wednesday with a 4-1 win behind some goaltending excellence by Darcy Kuemper.

He tallied 19 saves in the first period alone to set a franchise record for most saves in a playoff period. Kuemper finished with 39 saves on 40 attempts in his biggest game in a Coyotes uniform.

“It was good to come out and play a solid game,” Kuemper said. “As a team, we kind of realized what was on the line and all kind of elevated our play and rose to the occasion.”

Kuemper said he’s feeling healthy and ready to go for Friday’s game, but Tocchet doesn’t want the team to have to rely on him as much. He said the team needs to be more physical early in the game.

In the first 13 minutes Wednesday, the Coyotes only had three shots on goal, including a goal scored by Christian Dvorak.

That was a flip of Tuesday’s loss, when the Coyotes had 14 shots on goal in the first period but failed to score while the Predators only had five shots on goal but netted two.

Yet the Coyotes managed to get the win on the day they started with just a handful of good shots in the opening period, not the one in which they were consistently at the net. That may not happen again.

“We have to be ready to start a little quicker, make sure they get the outside shots and we protect the interior. I thought the middle was open a little too much for them, especially early,” Tocchet said. “We gotta be more physical early in the game. That’s really (what it) comes down to.”

Defenseman Jason Demers had a similar sentiment. The Coyotes don’t want to start slow again with the chance to put the series away.

“You can’t take it for granted and you’ve gotta know that they’re going to come out with their hair on fire,” Demers said. “Make sure that the first five, ten minutes of the game we’re ready and make sure we just keep our foot on their necks, so to speak.”

For even though their season isn’t on the line, if the Coyotes take one more loss, it will be. Then this whole conversation changes from what Demers described as the team being “on a high right now” to a feeling of legitimate desperation.

“It’s do or die for them. They lose, they’re going home, so they’re going to give us everything they have,” Demers said.

“Tocch’s been saying manage the prosperity. We’re on a high right now so we gotta make sure we just kind of stay even-keeled. Tomorrow’s another game and take it as a 0-0 series. We just gotta win this game tomorrow.”

Injury update

Nick Schmaltz skated for 20 to 25 minutes Wednesday and will skate again Thursday, Tocchet said.

Schmaltz has yet to play this series. He was injured in an exhibition game July 30 when he took a high hit from Vegas forward Ryan Reaves.

Goalie Antti Raanta will not participate in practice Thursday. He was hurt during warmups before Game 2 and missed Game 3.


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