#6 NASHVILLE PREDATORS
#11 ARIZONA COYOTES
Game 1 – Sunday, 8/2 – 11AM PT – USA Network
Game 2 – Tuesday, 8/4 – 11:30AM PT – NBCSN
Game 3 – Wednesday, 8/5 – 11:30AM PT – NBCSN
Game 4 (if necessary) – Friday, 8/7 – Time/TV TBD
Game 5 (if necessary) – Sunday, 8/9 – Time/TV TBD
This Qualifying Round series will likely fly under the radar of the national media, but mark your calendars, because this is going to be a fun one. There’s a lot to like about both of these teams, from the Roman Josis and Filip Forsbergs of Nashville, to the Taylor Halls and Jakob Chychruns of Arizona.
The Predators are certainly the bettor’s favorites here, but there are some interesting aspects to consider with both teams’ respective netminding situations, and oddly a lot of drama currently playing out in the desert. Those facets should make this matchup hotter than Phil Kessel’s favorite meal, which is of course a hot dog.
Good one, Randy. Good one.
Nashville looked primed for a deep playoff run at the onset of the season, but struggled to get its legs under itself, and ultimately saw a coaching change of John Hynes taking over for Peter Laviolette. Hynes is still only the third coach in Nashville’s 22-year history as a franchise, and his hiring was an enigmatic one.
After New Jersey splashily landed P.K. Subban and drafted Jack Hughes with the top overall pick last offseason, expectations were elevated for Hynes and his Devils, but that franchise slowly slid into a hellish abyss (which I guess is an appropriate place for a team called the Devils). Hynes was finally shown the door out of… Hell… with an overall record of 150-149-5, but his middling results didn’t deter Nashville GM David Poile from quickly snatching him up. Poile told the Associated Press in January, “We’re confident that he’s the guy to cultivate a winning culture in our locker room.” The jury remains out on whether this will end up being true – Hynes went 16-11-1 in 28 games behind the Predators’ bench – but at a minimum, he has gotten his new squad into the postseason.
What should give Nashville fans hope heading into this series is that they have great skill at both forward and defense, and plenty of postseason experience. The top line of Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Victor Arvidsson is, at least on paper, one of the best forward lines in all of hockey. And the top defensive pairing of Norris Trophy nominee, Josi, and Ryan Ellis happens to be one of the strongest in the league in its own right. Josi remarkably led the whole team in scoring with 65 points (16 goals, 49 assists), while superstar Forsberg had the most goals with 21. Guys like Arvidsson, Johansen, and Matt Duchene had underwhelming seasons, but one can expect big things from them coming out of the layoff.
What could derail this team is goaltending. It’s odd for this to even be a concern, as Pekka Rinne has been one of the most consistent backstops in the NHL for more than a decade. But at 37 years old, his age seemed to finally catch up with him during this regular season, as he posted a 3.17 GAA and abysmal .895 save percentage in 35 games. Unsurprisingly, 25-year-old backup Juuse Saros was given a fair shake to take over the crease, and played great in the three weeks leading up to the league’s March shutdown. Though he remains unproven in postseason play, Saros is expected to get the nod.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Coyotes in the postseason, and in fact, the last time this franchise qualified, it was still calling itself the Phoenix Coyotes.
John Chayka, the youngest GM in the league, finally seemed to have the Arizona Coyotes on the right track with a very analytical and out-of-the-box approach. New owner Alex Meruelo had bought into Chayka’s philosophies to the point that he had reportedly extended Chayka’s contract by three (or maybe four?) seasons. But something happened in the past couple of weeks to sour the relationship between the two, and Chayka ended up resigning in ugly fashion over the weekend. Regarding the split, an NHL source told AZ Coyotes Insider’s Craig Morgan that, “John Chayka is a liar and a quitter.”
The front office issues became apparent last week when Craig Custance and Elliotte Friedman began reporting that Taylor Hall was discussing a new contract not with Chayka, but with Meruelo and his recently hired COO, Xavier Gutierrez.
Read Craig Morgan’s whole story on the messy breakup here. It’s a doozy. Technically none of this should have any impact on the outcome of this series, but whenever there’s dirty laundry in an organization, and it’s being aired publicly, it certainly doesn’t help a team’s chances. The timing of this whole fiasco is very unfortunate for Arizona.
Off-ice issues aside, this Coyotes squad really is quite solid. While Nashville has questions in net, Arizona has answers. Darcy Kuemper had a fantastic season in goal, despite missing about half of it due to injury. When he was in, he posted a 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage, and when he was out, Antti Raanta served as perhaps the best 1B goalie in the league. This is a formidable tandem that should give the skaters oodles of confidence to play aggressively against a powerful opponent.
Speaking of the skaters, there’s good skill up front too, with guys like Hall, Kessel, Conor Garland, and Clayton Keller spread throughout the team’s top three lines. Meanwhile, stalwart blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads the defense corps with young Jakob Chychrun quietly rising through the NHL’s young stud ranks on the second pairing.
A few days ago, I would have said the Coyotes would be surprise winners because they match up well with Nashville in general, but hold the advantage in goal. Now, with all this drama in the front office, I can’t help thinking that it will be enough of a distraction to give the edge back to Nashville. Still, this one will be close.
Predators will win in 5.