For the first time since relocating to Arizona, the Phoenix Coyotes will experience the second round of the playoffs.
The Coyotes, who were known as the Winnipeg Jets before moving prior to the 1997-97 season, were 0-7 in postseason series before ousting the Chicago Blackhawks in six games during the Western Conference quarterfinals. That series victory was the first for the franchise since 1987, when the Jets defeated Calgary in the opening round.
One of the main reasons Phoenix has finally made it into the second round is the play of goaltender Mike Smith.
After signing a two-year contract to join the Coyotes over the summer, the 30- year-old backstop finally seems to have found a home in the desert. Smith played in 67 games during the regular season, posting a 38-18-10 record to go with a 2.21 goals-against average, .903 save percentage and eight shutouts. The career season greatly overshadows anything Smith was able to accomplish during his previous NHL stints in Dallas and Los Angeles.
Smith took his game to an even higher level in the opening round against the high-powered Blackhawks. Chicago, which was tied for fifth in the NHL in scoring during the regular season, fired 241 shots at Smith over six games, but only 12 pucks beat the goaltender. Smith, who closed the series with a 39- save shutout in Game 6, had a 1.81 GAA and a .953 save percentage against the Blackhawks.
One thing that helps Smith's cause in net is the dedication to team defense the Coyotes have displayed during head coach Dave Tippet's tenure. Phoenix has been ranked in the top-five in goals allowed in two of Tippett's three seasons as the head coach and the club was fifth in 2011-12 with an average of 2.37 goals allowed per game.
Tippett expects all his players, forwards and defensemen alike, to play responsibly in their own zone. However, that doesn't mean Tippett puts a leash on his blueliners when it comes to contributing on offense, as Phoenix boasts a couple of dynamic offensive defensemen in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman- Larsson.
The 25-year-old Yandle finished fourth on the Coyotes in scoring during the regular season with 50 points (11 goals, 32 assists) and he tied for the team lead with five points -- all assists -- in the opening round against Chicago.
At just 20 years of age, Ekman-Larsson is coming off an excellent sophomore season as an NHLer. The Swede skated in all 82 games for Phoenix and finished eighth on the team with 32 points (13G, 19A). Ekman-Larsson, the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft, had one goal and two assists in the first round against Chicago and led the entire team with an average ice time of 26 minutes, 31 seconds.
Veteran defenseman Rostislav Klesla posted one goal and three assists in six games versus the Blackhawks after registering just three goals and 10 assists in 65 tests during the regular season.
In addition to Klesla, the Coyotes' blue line also feature veterans like Derek Morris, Michal Rozsival and Adrian Aucoin. Rozsival is questionable for Game 1 of the upcoming conference semifinals with a lower-body injury and David Schlemko will likely take his place should he not be ready to play at the start of this series.
The opening round was not a good showcase for Phoenix's offense, as the club's top-four scoring forwards (Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan and Lauri Korpikoski) from the regular season combined for just two goals and six points in the series against Chicago. Whitney, who paced the Coyotes with 77 points this season, had the best showing of that group with a goal and two assists.
Doan, who was 0-8 in playoff series with the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise before the end of last round, had one goal and one assist in six games against the Blackhawks. The club's longtime captain has 21 points (11G, 10A) in 45 career postseason contests.
Meanwhile, Vrbata had just one assist in the six games after recording a career-best and team-high 35 goals during the 2011-12 campaign. Vrbata was also a minus-four for the series, giving him a minus-16 rating over 26 career playoff games.
Korpikoski failed to register a point against the Blackhawks, but he did miss Games 3 and 4 of that series with a lower-body injury. Although the Coyotes would obviously like the Finnish forward provide some offensive punch, Korpikoski also has tremendous value for Phoenix as a penalty-killer.
With their main weapons silenced in the opening round, Antoine Vermette led all Coyotes with four goals in six games. The veteran is known more for his faceoff prowess than scoring and had just 11 goals in 82 total games with Columbus and Phoenix in 2011-12.
Mikkel Boedker, Taylor Pyatt and Gilbert Brule each notched a pair of goals in Round 1, with Boedker supplying OT game-winners in both Games 3 and 4.
Of course, the Coyotes will be without their most physical forward in this series as Raffi Torres was handed a 25-game suspension for a dirty hit on Chicago's Marian Hossa in the opening round.
Although Phoenix was ranked 29th in the NHL with a paltry 13.6-percent success rate on the power play during the regular season, the Coyotes were much better on the man advantage in the first round. Phoenix cashed in on 4-of-19 power- play opportunities (21-percent) against the Blackhawks.
Phoenix was ranked eighth in the NHL in penalty killing this season (85.5- percent) and prevented Chicago from scoring on 18 of its 19 power-play chances in Round 1.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS (4th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-26-8
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Detroit 4-1 in conference quarterfinals.
(Sports Network) - Since coming into existence as an expansion team for the 1998-99 season, the Nashville Predators have been slowly gaining respect around the league. Now, for the first time in the franchise's brief history the Predators are being taken seriously as a Stanley Cup contender.
The Preds have had the same head coach and general manager -- Barry Trotz and David Poile, respectively -- since entering the NHL and that patience has paid off over the years. After missing the postseason for its first five seasons, Nashville has punched its ticket to the playoffs in seven of the last eight campaigns. However, the Predators never even won a postseason round until defeating Anaheim in six games during last year's Western Conference quarterfinals.
Nashville was bounced out by Vancouver in the second round in 2011, but after getting past Detroit in five games of this year's conference quarters, the Preds are aiming to go even further.
Trotz and Poile have relied heavily on defense during their successful partnership in Nashville. The Predators, who boast an excellent goaltender in Pekka Rinne and one of the best defensive corps in the league, were once again excellent in their own zone this season, but the club is more dangerous on offense now than it has ever been.
Nashville finished the 2011-12 season tied for eighth in the league in team defense with an average of 2.50 goals allowed per game. They were also tied for eighth in offense with 2.83 GPG.
Rinne is the last line of defense behind a solid group of blueliners that includes the dynamic duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Both defensemen were All-Stars this past season and they were Nashville's leaders in ice time in the opening series against Detroit. Weber skated an average of 27:44 per game, while Suter was just two seconds behind.
Weber, a Norris Trophy finalist in each of the last two seasons, was tied for the league lead among defensemen with 19 goals this season and he added two more in the five playoff games against Detroit. Suter posted a career-high 46 points in 2011-12, but failed to reach the scoresheet in the first round against Detroit.
Kevin Klein led Nashville's blue line with three points (2G, 1A) in the opening round, while Francis Bouillon posted a team-high plus-six rating.
Nashville was unable to use one of its trade deadline acquisitions against Detroit in Round 1, as Hal Gill sat out the entire series with an unspecified lower-body injury. Gill, who at 6-foot-7 provides a serious physical presence at the back end, came over from Montreal at this season's deadline and brings championship experience to the club after winning a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. He is questionable for the start of this series.
In addition to trading for Gill, Nashville also added to its offense before the deadline, getting winger Andrei Kostitsyn, brother of fellow Predator Sergei, and gritty center Paul Gaustad. Andrei Kostitsyn and Gaustad each had a goal and an assist in Round 1.
However, Nashville added its biggest piece during the season outside of the trade market when Alexander Radulov decided to return to the NHL after leaving the Predators a few years ago to play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Radulov, who still had a year left on his Nashville contract when he left for the KHL, posted seven points in nine regular-season games with the Predators this season and then led the team with five points (1G, 4A) in five games against Detroit.
Gabriel Bourque paced Nashville with three goals in the Detroit series and he tied David Legwand for second on the team with four points. Legwand had two goals and two assists, and along with Gaustad, he gives Nashville two excellent faceoff options.
The Preds had the best power-play in the NHL during the regular season, scoring on 21.6-percent of their chances with the man advantage. However, Nashville did not fare well against Detroit in that department in Round 1, scoring twice on 22 power-play opportunities (9.1-percent).
Rinne was named as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for a second straight campaign thanks to his play in the regular season and he did not slow up in the opening round against Detroit. The 30-year-old Finnish goaltender frustrated the Red Wings throughout the five games, stopping 151-of-160 shots for a .944 save percentage and a 1.81 goals-against average. Four of Detroit's nine goals against Rinne came on the power play.
Nashville killed off 19-of-23 power plays in the opening round against Detroit.
Neither of these franchises have ever made it past the second round of the playoffs and that includes Phoenix's history as the Winnipeg Jets. Of course, that fact will change for one of these teams in the first-ever playoff meeting between these clubs.
It's always difficult to count out a team that is as tough to score against as Phoenix, but the Predators have the deeper roster at both ends of the ice. Smith may steal a game or two for Phoenix, but Rinne is just as capable of doing the same for the Predators.
The Coyotes went 2-1-1 against Nashville during the season series, but Smith only played in one of those games. Smith's lone appearance against the Predators in 2011-12 came in Phoenix on March 12 and wound up taking a loss as Nashville won the contest by a 5-4 score in a shootout. Rinne started all four games against the Coyotes and was 2-2 with a 2.71 GAA and .919 save percentage.
Despite allowing an average of 32 shots per game in the opening round against Detroit, Nashville had faith in Rinne and it's ability to pull out close games. In the second round, the Predators will face a team that relies on a similar strategy for wins, although Nashville is better suited than Phoenix to dial up the offense when it needs to.
This doesn't expect to be the most exciting series in terms of pacing and offense, but, the individual games should be close and that could mean a few of the battles will be decided in overtime.
In the end, expect Trotz's Predators to be the team skating its way into uncharted territory.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Predators in 6