The Predators are a perennial playoff contender with two division titles, a Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup Final appearance in the past four seasons. The Coyotes, on the other hand, were on pace to miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season after struggling down the stretch.
The Predators got off to a strong start in 2019-20, but things started going south after October. The team wasn’t living up to pre-season expectations and head coach Peter Laviolette was fired in January and replaced with John Hynes. They went 16-11-1 after the coaching change and finished with the sixth-best points percentage in the West.
Arizona also had a decent start and was firmly in the playoff hunt until hitting a slump in January. They went 8-13-4 in the 25 games prior to the NHL’s pause.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at how the Preds and Yotes stack up.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Predators: 50.95 CF% (10th), 52.96 GF% (6th), 91.98 SV% (13th), 8.56 SH% (12th), 1.005 PDO (11th)
Coyotes: 48.37 CF% (24th), 50.20 GF% (16th), 92.93 SV% (4th), 7.27 SH% (27th), 1.002 PDO (16th)
Predators: 17.3 PP% (25th), 76.1 PK% (29th), 215 GF (17th), 217 GA (17th)
Coyotes: 19.2 PP% (18th), 82.7 PK% (5th), 195 GF (21st), 187 GA (3rd)
The teams only met twice during the regular season. The Coyotes picked up a 5-2 win in mid-October thanks in part to two power-play goals from Phil Kessel. Then, in the final game before the Christmas break, the Predators won 3-2 in regulation after firing 41 shots on Antti Raanta.
They’ve met in the playoffs just once before. It was back in 2012 and the Coyotes won the conference semifinal matchup 4-1. That was the infamous series in which Nashville forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn broke curfew prior to Game 3 and the team suspended them.
Both forward groups struggled offensively this season. In fact, no forward on either team managed to score more than 50 points — well, Taylor Hall did, but roughly half of those points came with the New Jersey Devils — and only two forwards (Filip Forsberg and Conor Garland) in this series scored more than 20 goals. The best offensive player on either team this season was Norris Trophy finalist Roman Josi.
Nashville has more depth, including a reliable bottom-six filled with players whose physical, grinding styles thrive in the post-season. Nick Bonino and Craig Smith are defensively savvy veterans, while Colton Sissons and Austin Watson make you pay in the corners. The top line of Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson has well-rounded skill and the second line of Matt Duchene, Kyle Turris and Mikael Granlund has speed to burn.
The numbers would suggest Nashville, which boasts a significant advantage in the faceoff circle, should be able to control the pace and win the puck possession battle. Nashville averaged the fifth-most shots per game and Arizona allowed the ninth-most shots against, but will the Preds be able to light up what is perhaps the most unheralded goalie tandem in the NHL?
This series, as many often do, could come down to which team performs better on special teams. Despite how much talent they have, the Predators really struggle whether they’re a man up or a man down. The Coyotes were among the most proficient teams when shorthanded, with goaltending being a key contributing factor.
Although the Coyotes are accustomed to being spectators during the playoffs, there are a handful of players with plenty of experience and half a dozen of them have Stanley Cup rings.
Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet recently said he’s liking how his veterans are showing his younger players the ropes.
“We’ve got some guys who’ve won some hardware here, and they know the routine and what it takes,” Tocchet said. “They’re talking to the young players on what to expect. It’s a whole different pace this season in the playoffs. As a young guy, you have to realize that there is another level of commitment. When it comes to playoffs, there’s not a lot of room, and you’ve got to fight for your space.”
Predators X-Factor: Ryan Ellias
Although Josi naturally gets the bulk of the attention, Ellis is hugely important to the Predators’ back end. Ellis missed nearly two months early in 2020 with a concussion, but when he returned in late February he produced at a point-per-game pace and averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice-time. Ellis holds the Predators’ all-time record for playoff assists. He and Josi are a formidable pair for the Coyotes forwards to go up against.
Coyotes X-Factor: The goalie duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta
Kuemper was putting up Vezina-type numbers prior to sustaining a lower-body injury in December. Raanta filled in nicely and put up impressive numbers himself even when the team struggled and the Coyotes began falling out of playoff contention. Kuemper lost three of four starts after he returned from his injury, so there’s no clear-cut starter. Regardless of which netminder emerges as the starter, the Coyotes should be in good shape between the pipes.
“I think it’s a good advantage for our team that we have two good goalies and I hope that the players know that they can trust either one,” Raanta said on a recent conference call.
The biggest question facing the Predators: Which goalie will carry the load?
Like the Coyotes, Nashville has its own competition in net. Juuse Saros overtook Pekka Rinne as Nashville’s starter during the regular season, but the two have battled for the No. 1 role in the lead-up to this play-in series. Rinne often gets Vezina consideration, winning the trophy in 2018, but this season has been his worst since entering the league more than a decade ago. Rinne only made five starts since the beginning of February, while Saros went 11-4-0 down the stretch and put up excellent numbers. Whoever gets the nod for Game 1 might be on a short leash.
The biggest question facing the Coyotes: What will Taylor Hall’s contribution be?
The Coyotes acquired Hall from the New Jersey Devils in a December trade with the hopes of making a playoff push. Hall posted 27 points in 35 games for the Coyotes, but only had three goals in his final 19 games. Hall is the most talented forward Arizona has and they need him to be a force if they are to advance to the conference quarterfinals. The 2018 Hart winner is a pending unrestricted free agent if you hadn’t heard, and his performance against the Predators could go a long way to determining his future in Arizona.