GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The final two teams in the Eastern Conference are guaranteed to be a short distance apart. It will be the same way in the West as well, as the conference finals will be a Pacific Division party.
The incredible, improbable story of the 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes added another chapter Monday as they defeated the Nashville Predators 2-1 in Game 5 of this series at Jobing.com Arena to earn a place in the Western Conference Finals.
"It obviously means a lot," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "You get kind beat up after not being able to find a way out of that first round, so to be out of the second is pretty special. We talked about it as a group. We're only halfway. We need to win four more and regroup again."
Added Coyotes coach Dave Tippett: "It is very rewarding, because you love to see people rewarded for the work that they put in. You just think about how much work Shane Doan has put in. You think about the work that [Mike Smith] has put in this year and in his career to get to this level. This doesn't just happen by coincidence."
It is the first trip to the NHL's conference finals in franchise history. The Coyotes will meet division rival Los Angeles with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final at stake after the Kings swept the St. Louis Blues in the other conference semifinal.
Smith, signed in the offseason to a contract worth $47 million less than the guy who was in net for Phoenix before (Ilya Bryzgalov), continued his stellar postseason with 32 saves. The Coyotes, as has been their way this season, received contributions from unexpected places, and played lockdown defense in front of Smith.
"We made it muddy down in front of our net, and the mud won out in the end," Tippett said. "We defended. We kept them outside. We packed it in around our net. We did a lot of bend and didn't break. They have some high skill on that team and if you allow [good] chances they are going to take advantage. We tried to make them as contested as possible. We had a lot of guys blocking a lot of shots."
Nashville advanced to the second round for the second time in franchise history, but for the second straight postseason went no further. There were high hopes in "Smashville" this season -- the Predators were one of the League's top regular-season teams and added Andrei Kostistyn, Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill before the trade deadline to bolster the roster for a Cup run. They also added Alexander Radulov just before the end of the season after he had played in Russia for the past four seasons.
Radulov and Kostitsyn were suspended for Game 3 after reportedly staying out past curfew before Game 2 here, and they were healthy scratches for Game 4. Both returned for Nashville to try and help the Predators avoid elimination and provide some offensive spark, but it didn't happen.
"We had high expectations and we ran into a very good team that played hard and did all the right things to win," Nashville captain Shea Weber said. "The teams play a similar style of hockey. I don't think we did play our style early in the series, they took advantage and we dug ourselves a big hole."
After a scoreless first period, Nashville pushed and came close on several occasions, but it was Phoenix who went to the second intermission with a two-goal advantage.
Doan got behind Nashville's top defense pairing of Weber and Ryan Suter, but hit the post on his breakaway shot early in the second period. He kept working, circling the Predators' net twice before receiving the puck behind the net. The Phoenix captain sent it to the top of the offensive zone and Derek Morris was able to put his slap shot past Pekka Rinne with the help of a screen from Mikkel Boedker at 3:54.
It was Morris' first goal of this postseason. The team that has scored first in this series has won every game, and that is true dating back to the start of the postseason for the Predators.
"Our whole team has been playing well," Doan said. "We've said it so many times, but it is what makes it so fun to play on this team. You can count on so many different guys and so many different guys are the heroes every night."
Nashville had several great chances to level the score. The Predators had a 3-on-1 and both Roman Josi and Weber put attempts off the left post. Radulov could have put a rebound into the open net, but it bounced over his stick. Josi had the final chance of the flurry, but Boedker saved a goal.
The Predators had a power play later in the period, and Weber's blast from the top of the zone glanced off the right post and right to the feet of Kostistyn, but he was unable to push home the rebound.
"We weren't able to bury our chances," Suter said. "We never gave ourselves a chance to win. You don't think this is how the season is going to end -- at least I didn't."
Seconds after another strong chance for Nashville, Phoenix countered for a two-goal lead. Patric Hornqvist put the puck in front from behind the net and neither of linemates, Gabriel Bourque or David Legwand, could convert. Legwand was tripped as the puck went into the left corner, and two other Predators players showed some frustration by stopping and looking for a penalty.
When the whistle didn't blow, the Coyotes were going the other way with numbers. Martin Hanzal received a pass from Kyle Chipchura as a trailer on the play and ripped a shot into the top of the net at 15:09 for his third of the postseason.
Colin Wilson, who began this game on the top line after two strong performances in Nashville, cut Phoenix's lead in half with 5:59 left in the third period. Wilson sent the puck toward the net from the left wall. When Legwand collected it along the right wall, he did the same and Wilson had cut to the slot and was there to redirect it into the top left corner of the net.
It ended Smith's bid a second-straight shutout. His streak without a goal, dating back to the midway point of the first period in Game 3, reached 162:36 before Wilson's tally.
"It has been a heck of a ride," Smith said. "I feel so fortunate to have an opportunity like this. They don't come around every year. You don't make the playoffs every season, and you certainly don't make the conference finals every year, so it has been a heck of a ride."
The Predators pressed for an equalizer in the final minutes, but the Coyotes were able to hold on. Smith nearly scored a goal into the empty net at the other end before a wild celebration from the sellout crowd.
"Coyote Ugly -- that's kind of been the motto here," Smith said. "We've learned a lot about who we are as a group in here. Every guy has contributed at some time during the series and during this playoff stretch."
Added Doan: "It is kind of funny, but when we went on that [11-0-1 streak] in February, we thought, 'We can beat anybody now.' We really did think we could beat anyone. That was probably the first step. Winning the division was big for our group -- feeling like you not only belong in the playoffs, but you won the division. It was tight and came down to the last day, but it meant a lot."