Sportsbook NHL Playoff Preview: Nashville Predators vs Phoenix Coyotes
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Sportsbook Game 1 Line & Total: Pick 'em & 5 under -125
Series Price: Nashville -160, Phoenix +140
The Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes each look to advance to the Conference Finals for the first time in their respective franchise's histories when they kick off the Western Conference Semifinals on Friday night.
Both the Yotes and the Preds put forth impressive showings in the first round, knocking off perennial powerhouses Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Phoenix finished off the Blackhawks with a dominant 4-0 shutout victory in Game 6 after, incredibly, each of the first five games of the series went to overtime. Nashville made arguably the biggest statement of the first round, disposing of the Red Wings in a tidy five games-limiting the potent Detroit offense to just nine goals combined (1.8 per game). This series presents an interesting matchup of two teams that are, essentially, mirror images of one another-built around strong team defense and superb goaltending. No longer can these two franchises consider themselves "under the radar"-both advanced into the second round with a type swagger normally displayed by the teams with which they disposed of, and each is now just four wins away from making it to the final four.
Why Nashville Can Win:
1. Pekka Rinne
The Vezina Trophy-finalist led the NHL in wins in the regular season (43) and did not disappoint against the Red Wings, turning aside 151 of the 160 shots he faced en route to a 4-1 series win over Nashville's division rival. Rinne started all four games against the Coyotes in the regular season, but posted average numbers (2-2-0, .919 SV Pct.) despite one shutout victory. Regular season records have proven to mean very little in the postseason though, and the Finnish netminder is playing as well as anyone in the playoffs right now. With the help of a deep defensive core playing in front of him, Rinne could single-handedly steal this series.
2. Underrated Offense
Even though Nashville General Manager David Poile has built this team around defense and goaltending, do not sleep on the sneaky-good scoring attack of the Predators. Nashville proved it's much more than a defense-only team during the regular season, where the Preds ranked eighth in the NHL in goals per game (2.94) and had the best power play in the league, converting at a 21.6 percent clip. As predicted by StatFox, RW Alexander Radulov (1 G, 4 A)-who joined the team a month ago after playing four years in the Russian KHL-had an immediate impact for the Predators, leading the team with five points in the first round. Nashville also got surprise contributions from 21-year-old winger Gabriel Bourque (team-high 3 goals) and defenseman Kevin Klein, who scored two goals in the Detroit series after tallying just four times all season. If the Preds continue to get this kind of depth scoring to complement studs like C David Legwand (2 G, 2 A) and Norris Trophy-finalist Shea Weber (2 G), the Predators will cruise into the next round.
Why Phoenix Can Win:
1. Mike Smith
In our Conference Quarterfinals preview we asked the question "Can Mike Smith stay hot?" Well, in case you couldn't tell, the answer was a resounding yes. The Phoenix goaltender quietly had one of the best regular season of any goalie in the NHL, somehow escaping the notoriety of big-name goalies (like the one he is about to face). After allowing just two goals during a five-game winning streak to close out the season, Smith carried it over into the first round to stymie the Blackhawks, posting a .950 SV Pct. (third-highest in playoffs) to go along with a clutch shutout in Game 6. Smith proved to be a difference maker in a series that consistently went to overtime-where Chicago's Corey Crawford let in softies, Smith stood tall and is, undoubtedly, the team's most valuable player heading into this series.
2. Special Teams
This may seem counter-intuitive given the fact that Nashville boasted the best power play in the NHL while Phoenix ranked second-to-last with a miserable 13.5 percent conversion rate. The tables were reversed, though, in the first round of the playoffs as the Yotes scored four power play goals on 19 chances (21 percent) while the Preds tallied only twice in 22 opportunities (9 percent). Granted, this is an extremely small sample size compared to the entire season-and Phoenix's numbers also speak to Chicago's 27th-ranked penalty kill-but if the Coyotes have any chance of winning this series, they need their power play and penalty kill to be as impressive as their goaltender.
As similar as these two squads appear to be, Nashville has a decisive edge in offensive depth. The Coyotes were fortunate to face a Blackhawks team with questionable goaltending, but the fact that three of their four wins came in overtime speaks to the lack of offensive firepower in this lineup. Phoenix's two leading scorers in the regular season (Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney) combined for just one goal and three assists in the Chicago series. While players like trade deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette (4 G, 1 A) and 22-year-old Mikkel Boedker (2 OT goals) stepped up big, Nashville's defense won't allow nearly as much space in this series. Ultimately, even if Mike Smith stands on his head (which he is fully capable of doing), the Predators have a goaltender to match him. Nashville also has a significant depth advantage up front. Despite lacking a singular superstar, the Predators had seven different skaters tally 40+ points. Phoenix coach Dave Tippett has done more with less than almost any coach in the league since taking over in 2009 (making the playoffs all three years despite serious ownership issues).