GLENDALE, Ariz. – Slowed by injuries and saddled by inconsistency in the first round of the playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes "Prime Line" stepped up in prime time to help goalie Mike Smith steal another postseason win.
Martin Hanzal, who had an overtime goal in Game 1 of the first-round win over Chicago, this time won the faceoff that set up linemate Ray Whitney for a lunging, game-winning goal 14:04 into overtime Friday as the Coyotes blew three one-goal leads, were outshot 16-1 in the third period and still found a way to beat the Nashville Predators 4-3 to begin their Western Conference Semifinal series.
Whitney also assisted on Radim Vrbata's first goal of the postseason in the first period as Phoenix's No. 1 line, which combined for only two goals in the first round, had a pair against Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne.
The Coyotes won 46 of 78 faceoffs in the game, including 18 of 23 in the first period. Hanzal, who was 5-14 on draws in the playoffs before Friday, went 14-8 -- and his 14th win of the night was the big one as the Coyotes won a second-round game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
"Marty won the draw and I went to the net and the puck kind of bounced around. It was just kind of a muck from there," Whitney said of his 21st career playoff goal and his second in overtime -- but the first since 1995. "We do everything the hard way. [There's] nothing easy about the way we're doing this."
The Coyotes have gone to overtime in six of their first seven games in this postseason – the first time that's happened in NHL history. Phoenix has won four of those six games – three times after losing third-period leads.
Phoenix led 3-2 after 40 minutes Friday, but Nashville outshot the Coyotes 16-1 in the third period and snapped a 2-for-26 postseason drought on the power play on Martin Erat's tying goal with 4:42 left in regulation.
The Predators dominated the rest of the third period and had the better of the play in overtime. But Phoenix goalie Mike Smith made 39 saves -- including a huge stop on Francis Bouillon's rebound chance in overtime -- to give the Coyotes time to find a way to win.
"They were coming hard, and we didn't respond," Whitney said. "You can't sit back and take it the way we have, it hasn't been working for us. We've given up four leads [in the third period] here at home. As a group we have to try to do something different. In the end it will eventually catch up to us."
Radim Vrbata, Rostislav Klesla and Mikkel Boedker scored for Phoenix in regulation and Brandon Yip, Andrei Kostitsyn and Erat answered each time for Nashville, which now has scored eight third-period goals in its first six games of the postseason.
"In the first period and even in the first half of the game, we were rusty and it showed," said Nashville coach Barry Trotz, whose team hadn't played since eliminating Detroit a week ago. "In the third, we ratcheted it up and we were much better in overtime. We had about 30 chances [in the game]. Smith made some big saves, made a great save on Frankie Bouillon in overtime. We just didn't get that one extra puck we needed."
The Coyotes were aggressive and opportunistic in the first two periods, but their passive play down the stretch and three trips to the penalty box in the third period left coach Dave Tippett feeling fortunate to win.
"They pushed hard and we didn't generate anything. Our skill and compete level was nonexistent," Tippett said. "We were fortunate to win in overtime, but it's not good enough. Mike Smith was under siege in the third period and overtime and he played very well. He did a heck of a job for us."
Vrbata, a 35-goal scorer during the regular season who was held to just one assist in six games by Chicago and was a minus-4 for the series, opened the scoring 7:23 into the game when he banked a power-play feed from Whitney off Rinne's shoulder and under the crossbar. That got the white-clad crowd of 17,187 at Jobing.com Arena revved up -- but as would be the case all night, Phoenix's lead didn't last long.
Nashville's first goal came off a fortunate bounce. Bouillon smacked a puck from the neutral zone into the corner to the right of Smith, who went behind his net to play it. But the puck took a wild hop off the glass and bounded right into the slot, where Yip fired the gift into an empty net at 14:09 to even the game.
"I saw it out of the corner of my eye going back the wrong way. I'll have to talk to the guy who put the rink together," Smith said. "It was just one of those things that's rattling at first, but you have to let it go."
The Coyotes regained the lead early in the second when a friendly bounce went the other way. Klesla pulled a puck off the side boards and marched to the net before trying a pass was blocked by Roman Josi -- but the puck came right back to Klesla. With Rinne committed the other way, Klesla popped home a backhander at 3:05 for his second goal of the playoffs – after scoring just three in 65 regular-season games.
Again, Nashville responded by immediately stepping up the pressure. Patric Hornqvist had a shot smothered by Smith, but the puck squirted free and Andrei Kostitsyn poked it off the far post and into the net at 11:19 to knot a game that was rising in physicality.
The Coyotes pushed back when Josi pinched in and Andrei Kostitsyn lost containment, sending Boedker and Shane Doan away on a 2-on-1 break. Boedker patiently held the puck and came to a dead stop before planting and pinging a wrist shot off the far post at 16:27 for his third goal of the playoffs.
Phoenix had its third goal of the night, but Nashville dominated from there, registering 20 of 21 shots in the third period and the first few minutes of overtime.
Smith did all he could, stopping David Legwand down low before springing up his glove to snatch a Bouillon rebound try to keep Phoenix in front.
But Nashville's power-play unit, ranked No. 1 the NHL during the regular season, finally struck on its fifth try. Ryan Suter's shot from the point into pile of bodies in front of the crease hit Hornqvist, who swept the loose puck to an unchecked Erat. The veteran forward stepped out of the traffic and put a backhander into a half-empty net to bring Nashville from behind for a third time.
"We took over the game and played in there end, we just couldn't score," Nashville captain Shea Weber said. "They play great team defense. They block a lot of shots. We had a lot of chances but didn't bury them. That ended up biting us in the end."