By Allan Muir
April 28, 2012

The Nashville Predators controlled nearly every aspect of their series opener with the Phoenix Coyotes Friday night.

Everything except the face-offs.

In the end, it cost them the game.

It was a decisive win by Martin Hanzal on just the third offensive zone draw for Phoenix in overtime that allowed the Coyotes to steal Game 1 with 4-3 victory.

Hanzal drove forward on the drop and pushed the puck over to the hard-charging Ray Whitney. The winger they call Wizard then chipped an awkward backhand behind Pekka Rinne at 14:04 of overtime to send the near-capacity crowd at Arena into a frenzy after nearly 40 minutes of fretful hockey.

"The little guy finds a way to get it done," said goaltender Mike Smith. "He's just a huge part of our team."

Smith was huge himself in the unlikely win. He allowed three goals on the night -- nearly double what he averaged in the first-round win over Chicago -- but held the fort over the final 35 minutes as the Coyotes were outshot 25-7, including 16-1 in the third.

"The third and overtime, he was under siege, but he held in there," said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "He did a heck of a job for us."

"We probably had 30 [scoring] chances on him," Predators coach Barry Trotz added. "He made a great save on Frankie Bouillon in overtime."

That was one for the highlight reel, alright, a glove save and a beaut. But his best stops came late in the second, right after Mikkel Boedker has given Phoenix a 3-2 lead. The first was a pure reflex glove save on a crease mouth redirect by Martin Erat. Moments later, he left Gabriel Bourque pleading skyward stoning after another in-tight chance. Bourque pounced on a rebound to the left of the net and appeared to have a gaping top half with the netminder sprawled on the ice. He went high, but Smith managed to swing his glove back and deflect it over the net.

As good as he was, Smith also had his troubles on the night. He was headed behind the net to handle a harmless Bouillon dump-in when a fluke bounce off a stanchion sent the puck careening out front to Brandon Yip, who slammed it into the open cage.

Later, he was victimized for another goal when he failed to control a puck that was cleared behind his net. Bouillon put it back in the crease where Andrei Kostitsyn plucked it out of a forest of legs and cashed in the rebound.

They were the sort of plays that leave Coyotes fans screaming for Smith to be given the Goldberg treatment, but Tippett was having none of it.

"I've said it lots of times before. The amount of times he plays it and it helps us far outweighs the odd time you get a bad break. It's a huge strength of his. Sometimes [something bad] happens."

He's right, of course. Smith's ability to disrupt Chicago's forecheck with his puck handling was a key to that first-round win. Those plays aren't glamorous, but they are critical to the team's transition game and will be a huge part of any success they have moving forward.

The real concern from the night is the one element of Phoenix's game that set Tippett off -- the second-half swoon should have sent the Coyotes to a Game 1 defeat.

"Skill and compete are imperative at this point of the season, and our skill and compete in the third were nonexistent," he said. "They cranked their game up and we didn't respond. If we expect to win this series, we have to be far better than we were tonight."

That stretch of bad road was reminiscent of their struggles at the beginning of Game 6 in Chicago where every breakout attempt was vaporized like Chris Hemsworth in Cabin In The Woods, and Smith was all that stood between them and utter embarrassment.

But that's a recurring theme with Smith this spring. His teammates stumble, he picks them up and Phoenix skates off with the win. Not an ideal game plan over the long haul, but it's worked lately.

And Nashville? Their centers will be spending a lot of time in practice Saturday doing remedial faceoff drills. Beyond that, they can't have many complaints with their Game 1 performance.

They tested Smith with 42 shots and by the second half of the game they were consistently getting bodies in front and testing him with rebounds down low. They showed a lot of character staging three comebacks from one-goal deficits. And they finally managed to snap Phoenix's streak of 18-straight penalty kills with Martin Erat's game-tying power play goal at 15:18 of the third. Overall, it was a performance that should have been rewarded with a win.

Trotz suggested as much afterward, adding that his team has another level to their game.

The thing is, Phoenix does as well.

It bodes well for another entertaining tilt Sunday night.

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