GLENDALE, Ariz. – The secret is out. The Phoenix Coyotes aren't just a cute story and a shut-down goalie hanging around these Stanley Cup Playoffs. Against the heavily-favored Nashville Predators on Sunday night, they showed they have some bite to their bark and plan on staying around the postseason for awhile.
Vowing to play better after squeaking out an overtime win in Game 1, the Coyotes responded with their best wire-to-wire effort of the playoffs. Antoine Vermette, Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal and Shane Doan each had a goal and an assist and the Coyotes peppered Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne with 39 shots and scored five times for the first time in the postseason to beat the Predators 5-3 in front of a rocking "White Out" crowd of 17,217 at Jobing.com Arena.
"That was our best game of the playoffs," said Phoenix forward Taylor Pyatt, who cleaned up a second-period rebound just 30 seconds after Nashville had cut a 3-1 second-period lead in half. "We haven't accomplished anything, but we got a great effort from each line and we came hard. But we haven't done anything yet. That's a good team over there."
The Coyotes have now scored 21 times on Rinne in six games this season – a 3.5-goals-a-game clip that is more than a goal over his average against the League (2.39). He has allowed nine in the first two games against Phoenix – the same number he allowed in five games against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.
Phoenix scored on pretty tic-tac-toe plays, deflections, and just plain hard work in beating a team known for its work ethic at their own game.
"For the most part we grind and pound our way to goals, but we're capable of some good plays too which probably a lot of people don't know about," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said with a smile. "We have an inner confidence. We talk about confidence being earned. And to a man after Game 1, they were happy we won but we knew we had to play better. They were determined to do what it took to win.
"Every thinks the other team should win the next game because they are supposed to win. Well, our guys don't understand that. Why can't we win again? That was the mindset in the room today."
Andrei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Suter scored for the Predators, who have a few days to regroup before the series resumes in Nashville with Game 3 on Wednesday night. They won't have to look any further for a blueprint than the scrappy Coyotes, who played without the injured Lauri Korpikoski and Michal Rozsival, lost defenseman Rostislav Klesla to a puck in the mouth in the first minute and just kept coming.
"That's their team identity and they understand it," Nashville defenseman Hal Gill said. "It's similar to ours, but we're just not doing it right now. We're not sticking to it. They're taking care of their end defensively. It's not a big secret. It's about the little things."
Nashville coach Barry Trotz pointed to Phoenix's eight even-strength goals in the first two games – more than the Predators yielded in five games to Detroit – as the root of the problem. Garbiel Bourque, David Legwand, Alexander Radulov, Kevin Klein and Roman Josi were on the ice for all three Phoenix goals in the second period, when the Coyotes took control.
"All the goals they have been scoring have been group efforts – and we were beaten in too many areas," Trotz said. "We've been chasing the whole series. We make it 3-2 and the next shift, they get a goal. We make it 4-3 and almost the next shift, we lose a draw.
"We didn't have everyone in tonight. We're scoring enough goals to win, but we're giving up way too many."
Rinne tied a season high by allowing five goals – something he did six times during the regular season – and the Coyotes outshot an opponent for the first time in eight playoff games. Smith made 30 saves and has won 11 of his last 13 starts dating back to a five-game run to end regular season. This time, he didn't have to do it all himself.
"It was nice to see the puck start going in for us," Smith said. "Obviously in the playoffs, anything can happen. But we have to feel good where we sit right now. We gain a lot of confidence with the way we won tonight."
Vermette buried his team-best fifth goal of the postseason behind Rinne at 8:32 of the first period to open the scoring, completing a pretty play set up by Mikkel Boedker's speed and Yandle's pinpoint pass. Nashville tied the game on a great play by Klein, who made a spinning pass as he was falling to the ice to find Kostitsyn in-stride up the slot for his second goal of the series at 17:13 to tie it.
But the Coyotes took control in the second period, with their "Prime Line" of Ray Whitney, Hanzal and Vrbata exploiting the Legwand line to light up Rinne.
Vrbata feathered a pass between Rinne's pads and found Hanzal crashing the crease at 3:47 for Hanzal's first goal since his overtime game-winner over Chicago to open the playoffs. Then after Klein hit the crossbar and Smith made a big save on Legwand in tight, the Coyotes went the other way and cashed in on a scramble.
A puck popped in the air behind the Nashville net and Legwand reached out and gloved it. Not wanting a penalty, Legwand flipped the puck away; it bounced off the top of the Predators' net and into the crease, where Vrbata found the handle and kept it low to beat Rinne at 7:05 – giving Phoenix the first two-goal lead of the series at 3-1.
Yandle's assist was his seventh of the playoffs – one more than Klesla and the most among all defensemen.
From there, it was a tug-of-way. Hornqvist deflected home a Suter shot from the point by Smith with five seconds left in a power play and at 11:20 to make it 3-2. But 30 seconds later, Rinne stopped Doan's blast on a rush up the right side with his shoulder but Pyatt beat a tardy Radulov to the rebound and swatted it out of the air and past Rinne to restore Phoenix's two-goal lead.
The third period was more of the same. Just 53 seconds in, Nashville captain Shea Weber set up Suter for a drive past Smith's glove and the Predators inched back to 4-3. But the Coyotes immediately turned up the heat and when Vermette pulled a draw back to the point, Derek Morris found Doan with a pass/shot for a deflection up and over Rinne and the Coyotes had enough to win back-to-back postseason home games for the first time in 15 years – when they beat Anaheim in Games 3 and 4 in 1997 at America West Arena.