Darren Eliot
Friday April 27th, 2012

Regular season series: Predators win 3-1

Oct. 13: Coyotes 5 at Predators 2 Nov. 3: Predators 3 at Coyotes 0 Dec. 6: Coyotes 3 at Predators 2 March 12: Predators 5 at Coyotes 4 (SO)

Key injuries: Phoenix -- D Rusty Klesla (eye, expected to play), D Michal Rozsival (upper body, day to day), C Martin Hanzal (lower body, expected to play), F Lauri Korpikoski (upper body, expected to play); Nashville -- D Hal Gill (lower body, day to day)

Snapshot: The Predators play a well thought out puck pursuit game. They limit rush chances-against and force teams to grind it out along the boards. A big, physical team, they're difficult on their opponents, wearing them down physically and eventually weakening their resolve. The Coyotes, meanwhile, play a counterpunch game, sticking to coach Dave Tippett's structure and capitalizing on their opponent's vulnerability however momentary it may be. See the Western Conference Quarterfinal wins by each as exhibit A.

Goaltending is the foundation for both teams, with the Preds' Pekka Rinne being one of the best in the game. The team in front of him is stout without the puck, but his crease presence is second to none. Meanwhile, counterpart Mike Smith has resurrected his journeyman's career with a stellar season and a revelatory turn against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. If both of these large-frame netminders play at their peak, eye-popping stops at both ends will replace goals on the highlight loops.

Another similarity between these teams is the excellence on the blueline. The Predators have Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, the Coyotes counter with Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. As with the goaltending, the pedigree is slightly higher for the Preds, with Weber a Norris Trophy nominee, and the experience level favors them as well, with Suter and Weber anchoring Nashville's backline together for the past four seasons. The organization has built around this tandem -- it's the best in the NHL.

Up front, the Coyotes need contributions from all hands, which they received while disposing of the Blackhawks. Antoine Vermette scored four times and Mikkel Boedker was the overtime hero twice. As proven veteran scorers, Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata will need to produce here because the Predators have depth of scoring like never before. Nashville's top line of Martin Erat, Mike Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn scored once in their first round victory, yet the Preds prevailed in five games. Grinding for goals will be the theme of the series and both teams create well and defend well in those situations.

Spotlight's on: Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith. The goaltenders will be front and center. Can Smith continue his exceptional play? Can he outperform Vezina-finalist Rinne? Conversely, can Rinne lead the Predators to a win in a unique situation for this franchise: when they're supposed to win? External expectations can change the dynamics in a series if things don't go well early. It will be up to Rinne to show top form from the outset.

X-Factor for Predators: Mike Fisher. He played hard hockey in the first round and did a commendable job defensively against the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk. In this series, Fisher could make a difference with some timely offense added to his all-around game.

X-Factor for Coyotes: Keith Yandle. The defenseman plays the heavy minutes against the opposition's top offensive players, along with partner Derek Morris. Yandle has to hold up defensively while at the same time stir the offense from the backend. He is a creative playmaker and dynamic skater and must be dangerous in supporting the attack on the rush and on the point.

The Pick: The Predators have the edge -- ever so slightly -- in every category. They'll move on to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history by beating the Coyotes in six.

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