For the first time since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg, the Phoenix Coyotes will experience the second round of the playoffs, as they host the Nashville Predators in tonight's Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
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 this year's 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. 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.
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.
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.
Nashville is into the second round for just the second time in its history. The other trip to the conference quarterfinals came last spring when the Predators beat Anaheim in Round 1 before losing to Vancouver in the next series.
The fourth-seeded Predators breezed past Detroit in five games in this year's conference quarterfinals and are hoping to reach the third round for the first-time ever.
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.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne is the last line of defense behind a solid group of blueliners that includes the dynamic duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. 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.
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 tonight's opener.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
Phoenix was 22-13-6 as the host during the regular season, but was 1-2 against at Jobing.com Arena in the opening round. The Predators were 22-16-3 as the guest in 2011-12 and won both of their games at Detroit in the conference quarterfinals.
"I'm really happy that we're starting on the road," Nashville head coach Barry Trotz said after Thursday���s practice. "I think it's needed for our team. We've been at home for probably 10 days now in total and it's time to get on the road. I think it will be a good way to get back in the swing of things by going into the other team's den right off the bat."
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Sunday in Phoenix.