COYOTES at PREDATORS
(Phoenix leads best-of-seven series, 2-1)
TV: NBCSN, TSN, RDS
Big Story: Nashville had its back against the wall Wednesday in a pivotal Game 3, but after responding with a 2-0 victory despite missing two of their best offensive players, the Predators now have a chance to pull the series level in Game 4 Friday night. If the Coyotes can manage to take one at Bridgestone Arena, however, they'll have the opportunity to wrap up a berth in the Western Conference Finals on home ice in Game 5.
Coyotes: Most viewers would agree that goalie Mike Smith has consistently been the best player on the ice for Phoenix so far in the postseason, and while his play in the crease has been very impressive there is a reason why most netminders don't leave the blue paint very often to play the puck -- and Smith found out why Wednesday night. Just under eight minutes into Game 3, Smith came out to the left faceoff circle to play a long Nashville clear and sweep it behind his own net, expecting it to land on the stick of a teammate. Instead the puck made its way to Gabriel Bourque, who found David Legwand open in front of an unguarded net.
Smith would give up another goal just 76 seconds later, and though he still ended the night with 24 saves and was solid aside from that brief span in the first period, Phoenix will need to minimize those kinds of mental errors against a team that is built on a disciplined philosophy and a hard forecheck. Finding the net wouldn't be bad either, as the Coyotes were shut out in Game 3 for the first time since March 29.
Predators: Friday's Game 4 could have been the end of the line for the Predators if they didn't manage to eke out a victory, and while the final score was just 2-0, it counts as much as a 10-0 win as far as the series is concerned. It isn't time to breathe easy yet for Nashville, but at least the Preds can be a little calmer not facing elimination Friday night. While the win may have rejuvenated a team that was facing a virtual must-win situation without Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov in the lineup due to violating team rules, the biggest reassurance Nashville can take might come from its own net.
Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne looked somewhat shaky in the first two games of the series in Phoenix, but Wednesday night he was in top form, turning aside 32 shots for his first postseason shutout. If Rinne puts together another strong performance Friday night, it will go a long way toward creating a tie series as both teams head back to Arizona. It will also be interesting to see what coach Barry Trotz does with his lineup -- Kostitsyn and Radulov are no guarantee to get their spots back immediately after the Predators' all-round team effort in Game 3.
Who's Hot: Nashville's Patric Hornqvist has just four points this postseason but three of them came in the first three games of this series. … Ray Whitney's overtime-winner in Game 1 isn't all he's done for Phoenix. The winger, who turns 40 on Tuesday, has four points in his last four games.
Injury Report: Lauri Korpikoski is still considered questionable after missing both Game 2 and Game 3 for Phoenix with an undisclosed injury. He's skated each of the past two days. Boyd Gordon didn't skate Thursday after stepping in front of a Shea Weber slap shot Wednesday, but is expected to be ready to play.
Stat Pack: Radulov's apparent sub-par dedication to defense was the subject of much media scrutiny earlier this week, but the concerns may be overblown. Despite being a combined minus-3 against Phoenix so far this series, Radulov is actually a plus-2 so far this postseason, a better rating than Weber, Paul Gaustad and Ryan Suter.
Puck Drop: Even though Nashville might feel as if it has momentum after its Game 3 win, Game 4 is no less pivotal. A loss would swing the momentum squarely back onto Phoenix's ice and if the Coyotes respond well Friday night, Monday's Game 5 could find the Predators facing elimination.