Talk about a tantalizing goalie matchup in this second-round series; it's perhaps the best netminder duel in the playoffs this year. Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith go head to head in a battle that should all but guarantee a low-scoring series.
"It's going to be a battle of who is going to make the least mistakes and play the better systems," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said.
The Coyotes are in the second round for the first time since 1987 when the franchise was the Winnipeg Jets. The Predators got to the second round for the first time in franchise history last spring.
Both teams are coming off first-round wins over Original Six clubs -- the Preds knocking off Detroit in five and the Coyotes beating the Blackhawks in six.
The TV numbers won't be great for this series, but who cares; these both are franchises that, from a hockey operations perspective, should be marveled at given the work of their front offices and coaching staffs.
The two clubs won two games apiece against each other this season, although three of the four games were played by Dec. 6, so you can't put much into those results. It's also the first playoff meeting between the two teams.
1. The coaches: Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz are akin to magicians. How they've squeezed so much from their respective rosters over the past few years is nothing short of remarkable. They are among the elite of the elite when it comes to the coaching fraternity, excellent communicators and masterful tacticians. Look for the chess match to begin in earnest in this series in terms of matchups and lineup decisions. And both coaches, of course, preach the importance of taking care of things in their own zone before worrying about anything else. Their offense feeds from their defense.
2. The goalies: From the department of "Are you kidding me?" we bring you the save percentages from the first round: Mike Smith at .950 and Pekka Rinne at .944.
What was a clear advantage for the Coyotes in their series win over the Blackhawks is nullified in this series.
"They've got Pekka Rinne, and he's unbelievable, too," Doan said. "You look at what he did in the Detroit series, he was unbelievable for them."
Interestingly, Coyotes backup Jason LaBarbera played three of the four games against the Predators this season, going 2-1-0, while Smith played only one game, losing 5-4 in a shootout March 12. So Nashville didn't really get much of a firsthand look at the new and improved Smith. Rinne, meanwhile, played all four games, winning twice and losing twice with a .919 save percentage.
3. Coyotes must improve: Both teams perhaps relied a bit too much on their respective netminders in their first-round victories, but the Coyotes especially saw their team play deteriorate in the last few games against Chicago.
"I hope that's not symbolic of how we're going to play," coach Dave Tippett said after Monday night's clinching win over Chicago, a game in which his team was outshot 28-8 through 40 minutes. "Because that ain't going to cut it."
"Certainly there's myself and some other guys that can be better," Doan said. "That's probably one of the more encouraging things of this, we can be better as a group, we weren't too good the last two games and we found a way to win one."
The Coyotes were a banged-up group by the end of the first round, not to mention the extra work involved in five overtime games. Did the first round take too much out of them? That will be something to watch early in their series with the Predators.
4. Special teams: Given what should be a defensive, low-scoring series, special teams should prove to be a huge factor. The Predators ended the regular season with the top-ranked power play in the NHL, while the Coyotes were a dismal 29th. Talk about a mismatch on paper. However, the tables were reversed in the first round as Phoenix connected for four power-play goals on 19 chances, good for a respectable 21 percent success rate. Conversely, the Preds scored only two power-play goals on 22 chances. That's a pretty small sample size in the playoffs, so you have to bank a bit more on the 82-game stats. Both teams' penalty-killing units were solid in the regular season, Phoenix ranking eighth in the league and Nashville 10th. The Coyotes took that to another level in the first round, leading all 16 teams with a 94.7 percent kill rate, allowing just one goal on 19 chances. The Preds had a so-so 82.6 kill rate in the first round.
5. Preds can score: These aren't your older brother's Predators. Long viewed as a defense-only team, Nashville has more offensive depth than those teams of the past few years, and the Preds finished eighth overall in the NHL this regular season in goals per game at 2.94. And that's with offensive star Alexander Radulov joining late in the year. Yes, the Preds remain a team that's built on goaltending and defense -- led by the star-studded duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter -- but they also can score. The additions of Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn late in the season added more offense to the group. This is an area in which the Preds have a clear advantage over the Coyotes. Mind you, the Blackhawks finished sixth in the league in goals per game at 2.94 this season and were stymied by the Coyotes in the first round.
• Mike Smith versus Pekka Rinne: OK, so goalies don't really go up against each other in an actual matchup, but this one is too obvious to ignore given what both netminders did in the first round. Smith, according to GM Don Maloney, has been insanely good for two months, and "willed" his team into the playoffs and past Chicago in the first round. Rinne was the star of Nashville's series win over mighty Detroit. Something has to give here, right? Win the goalie matchup, win the series.
• Alexander Radulov, Nashville Predators: The Russian star had five points in five games against Detroit and was a robust plus-5. But he was brought in for goal-scoring, and you know he's not happy that he scored only once. He'll be itching to light the lamp a few times in this series.
• Shane Doan, Phoenix Coyotes: The captain was limited to one goal and one assist in the six games against the Blackhawks, and he himself pointed out that he needs to contribute more in the second round. He's a clutch performer, so don't count against it.
• I picked the Predators before the playoffs to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals, and I'm not going to back down now. They've never been this loaded in their franchise history. It's their year. The Coyotes are beat up and have lost the biggest advantage they had in the first round: a far superior goalie. Predators in 6.