One of the more intriguing series in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round will feature two teams who were not slated to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the Arizona Coyotes, under head coach Rick Tocchet, it will be their first playoff appearance since the Phoenix Coyotes’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2012. On the other hand, the Nashville Predators have had a tough season. After starting the year 19-15-7, they made a coaching change firing Peter Laviolette and hiring John Hynes, who was let go by the New Jersey Devils earlier in the season.
Coming Into the Playoffs:
This is one thing the Coyotes and the Predators have in common. When the season paused, the Predators were on a three-game win streak. Nashville had been a very streaky team, as their last 20 games had comprised of both winning streaks and losing streaks, both spanning three-plus games at a time. For the Arizona Coyotes, they were also on a slow skid as they finished off their last ten 5-5-0, and were constantly struggling following the acquisition of former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall.
How They Match-Up:
During the regular season, the Coyotes and the Predators matched up twice. The Coyotes were victorious in their first matchup on October 17th in Glendale, winning the game 5-2. Phil Kessel ended the game with a pair of goals and the recognition of being the “First Star”. In the second meeting, Nashville came out on top at Bridgestone Arena on December 23rd, winning the game 3-2. Roman Josi finished the game with a goal and an assist and was the “First Star”. When it comes to playoff hockey, the Predators and Coyotes matched up in the Western Conference Semi-finals where Arizona took the series in five games.
Key Players to Watch:
Captain and Norris Trophy candidate Roman Josi is one of the league’s best defenseman, and lead the Predators this year with 65 points. Josi is far from being the only noteworthy defenseman on the Predators as Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Dante Fabbro make up a lethal top-four. The top-scoring forward on Nashville this year was winger Filip Forsberg, who finished the year with 48 points. One player who will get a lot of attention is noted playoff-performer Nick Bonino, who is famously known for scoring a goal late in the third period of Game One of the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals, leading to one of the best calls in hockey history. New acquisition Matt Duchene has had a rough year adjusting to the Predators’ play-style, but he can certainly be an x-factor for them during the playoffs. Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris, Mikael Granlund, and Craig Smith are also players to watch on their deep forward core. Finally, goaltending has been a key factor in the Predators’ playoff performance over the past few years. Former Vezina Trophy-winner Pekka Rinne is having a rough season, and with that has come the emergence of Juuse Saros, who could potentially steal the net from Rinne to start the playoffs.
The Coyotes have been building for a return to the playoffs. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, much like Josi, is one of the top defensemen in the league despite his struggles this season. Playoff veteran Alex Goligoski is also a key member of the Coyotes deep defense core, as well as Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, and Jakob Chychrun. Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller have lead a strong Coyotes offense, but they are far from the only strong performers. Conor Garland and Christian Dvorak have also had breakout seasons on the sore sheet. The Coyotes also have a good mix of veterans on their forward core as two-time Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel, mid-season acquisition Taylor Hall, Carl Soderberg, Brad Richardson, and Derek Stepan are all important members to Tocchet’s offense. In goal for Arizona are two of the league’s most underrated netminders in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper who both are more than capable of starting during the playoffs.
Both the Coyotes and the Predators are more than capable of winning this series, but in the end, I think the Coyotes will win the series in five games. A hot goaltender can steal a series, and Darcy Kuemper can be that hot goalie for the Coyotes.