NASHVILLE PREDATORS – By Jared Clinton
Jusse Saros waited long enough for Pekka Rinne to hand over the keys to the Predators’ crease, so the heir apparent simply shoved his veteran counterpart out of the way. Saros asserting himself as the starter-of-today rather than the starter-of-tomorrow couldn’t have come a moment sooner, either. Nashville closed December tied for last in the Central Division, but Saros’ impressive record and exceptional play since the beginning of the new year – he was among the league’s leaders in save percentage from Jan. 1 onward – aided in the Predators’ pursuit of a sixth consecutive post-season appearance.
Saros, of course, has the benefit of playing behind one of the deepest defense corps in the NHL. Even after parting ways with P.K. Subban, the Predators iced a top-four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro, who transitioned seamlessly into his role as a rookie. The on-paper talent the blueline possesses is at odds with what the numbers suggest about the Predators’ defense, however. That’s particularly true in the time since coach John Hynes’ arrival. Following Peter Laviolette’s firing in early January, the Predators were among the NHL’s most porous teams and surrendered shots at an uncharacteristically high rate.
The own-zone issues were masked in part by an attack that has been consistent, if nothing else. The Predators had 10 players with at least 10 goals and 12 players with at least 30 points. But high-end, game-breaking individual performers are few and far between in Music City. Filip Forsberg’s sixth straight 20-goal season makes him Nashville’s top lamp-lighter, but major summer signing Matt Duchene hasn’t been the offensive difference-maker the Predators hoped for. His per-game scoring rate was the third-lowest of his 11-year NHL career. Nashville will need more from its top players to make a deep run.
X-factor: Barring 2017, when Pekka Rinne posted an outstanding .930 save percentage and helped Nashville to its first Stanley Cup final appearance, crease catastrophes have been an annual occurrence in the post-season for the Predators. Saros cemented himself as the starter, but the Predators wrapped up their camp still undecided on who will be their No. 1 for the playoffs. Rinne’s playoff resume does little to inspire confidence. In five of his eight trips to the post-season, Rinne has posted a .909 SP or lower and has posted a .911 SP or better just twice. Given the Predators’ lack of firepower, goaltending will make all the difference.
ARIZONA COYOTES – By Brian Costello
The Coyotes rarely make it to the playoffs – just three times in the previous 16 seasons – but when they do, you’d think their defensive brand of hockey would serve them well. Because things really tighten up in the post-season, right? Problem is, you must be good at scoring goals, too, and Arizona doesn’t do that particularly well. Since 2012-13, the Coyotes have ranked among the bottom 10 teams in goals per game. Their average of 2.71 this season was impressive by their standards, a multi-year high, but still just 23rd overall.
When the Coyotes do stay competitive, such as the first three months of the season when they ranked sixth in the conference, it’s because they get things done by committee. Virtually every new forward arriving in Arizona over the years – Derek Stepan, Nick Schmaltz, Michael Grabner, Phil Kessel, Taylor Hall – sees a drop-off in personal production but an uptick in two-way play.
With a veteran defense led by unheralded star Oliver Ekman-Larsson and excellent goaltending in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, the Coyotes always stay involved. Arizona tied with Columbus for the third-best goals-against average in the league. But when Kuemper and Raanta were injured – third-stringer Adin Hill started nine games in January and February – the Coyotes dropped in the standings.
So how does Arizona get over the hump and make some noise as a team in the 17-24 range that wouldn’t have made the playoffs any other year? The Coyotes enjoy the guidance offered by players’ coach Rick Tocchet. So it’s likely a case of getting hot at the right time, with their playoff-style attention to defense plus some timely scoring from some offensive dynamos who have greatly underperformed this season. Special teams play can often swing a series. Arizona’s power play has never been top notch, but its PK is among the best. Maybe that’s the key there.
X-factor: Former Coyotes assistant GM Brad Treliving put it best when he said, “They should change the name of hockey to goaltending.” That’s because so much in a game depends upon the performance of the stopper. A good goalie can turn a series on its head. The last time the Coyotes won a playoff round, they were known as Phoenix and Mike Smith was spectacular in a 2011-12 run to the conference final. For Arizona to have any sort of success this post-season, Darcy Kuemper or Antti Raanta must be otherworldly good. The promising news is both men have that potential. Good health is always an issue.
Oct. 17, 2019: Coyotes 5, Predators 2
Dec. 23, 2019: Predators 3, Coyotes 2
Sunday, Aug. 2, 2:00 p.m.: Coyotes at Predators
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2:30 p.m.: Coyotes at Predators
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2:30 p.m.: Predators at Coyotes
Friday, Aug. 7, TBD: Predators at Coyotes *
Sunday, Aug. 9, TBD: Coyotes at Predators *
(All games listed in eastern time)
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Predators in four games
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