NHL 2nd Round Preview: Nashville-Phoenix

The NBC coalition televising the NHL playoffs undoubtedly would have preferred that Detroit and Chicago reach the Western Conference semi-finals rather than Nashville and Phoenix. But the Predators and the Coyotes it is, and even if this series doesn’t have marquee value for TV, it’s got solid value for hockey fans. TheSportsNotebook previews that Nashville-Phoenix battle that starts in the desert on Friday night…

I’ve been saying it throughout the playoffs and it’s certainly obvious to those closely following the NHL scene, but Phoenix is a one-man show. Fortunately that one man is between the pipes and its goalie Mike Smith. The Coyotes were able to win an admittedly weak Pacific Division during the regular season in spite of ranking 18th in offense, being one of the worst in allowing shots on goal and having a lousy power play. Essentially any statistical category that didn’t involve Smith was a weak point for Phoenix.

>The first round series against Chicago bore out that same pattern. The 40 shots a game that Smith faced on average through that six-game series was the highest allowed by any defense in the playoffs. Only two players between the goals were worthy of mention for Phoenix and only one of those was for a good reason. While Raffi Torres got deserved negative publicity for his vicious cheap shot on Chicago’s Marian Hossa and subsequent suspension for 25 games (basically the rest of the playoffs),center Antoine Vermette was a force for good, scoring four goals and helping the ‘Yotes win a series where the first five games went to overtime.

Nashville brought a better-balanced team into the playoffs, with a top-flight goaltender of their own in Pekka Rinne, who promptly outplayed Detroit’s Jimmy Howard in the Preds surprisingly easy five-game win over the Red Wings. As a team Nashville was somewhat of an anomaly during the regular season—they allow a lot of shots, but still rank 10th in overall defense. That’s explainable by Rinne’s brilliance, but the offense was able to be a Top 10 group in spite of ranking only 25th in shots. For some teams—notably Washington—this kind of disparity can be explained by the presence of an offensive superstar who increases the value of each shot. But Nashville’s offense has to come from its back end, with defenseman Ryan Suter and Shea Weber needing to instigate action with their passing. Neither one did so very well against Detroit, but Rinne picked them up. The entire Predators offense needs to be more involved and needs to pressure Smith consistently because a few targeted shots aren’t going to get it done here.

Suter and Weber should be able to take some risks on the offensive end, because even if they get caught on the wrong side of the ice, Phoenix lacks the game-breaking offensive talent to really cash in open ice situations. Ray Whitney may be able to step up and contribute more offensively for the Coyotes, but it’s not as though he’s Alex Ovechkin waiting to break out.

In spite of Phoenix’s clear limitations, I still like this matchup. The series against Chicago showed that you have to generate 35-40 shots a night against Smith just to have a chance and I really believe this is a goalie inviting a team and a town to hop on his back while he carries them. The Coyotes will only be beaten by a truly complete team. Chicago lacked the goaltending. Nashville lacks the ability to generate consistent offensive pressure. In another series filled with heart-stoppers, Phoenix prevails in six.