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Series Preview: Experience, X-Factors, Expectations

Arizona (11) - Nashville (6) Stanley Cup Qualifiers Series Preview

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes will face the Nashville Predators in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series, starting Sunday. ArizonaCoyotes.com breaks down the match-up, history, schedule, broadcast information and more in this comprehensive preview: 

No. 11 Arizona Coyotes vs. No. 6 Nashville Predators 

Coyotes: 33-29-8 (.529 points percentage)

Predators: 35-26-8 (.565 points percentage) 

The Coyotes look to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in eight years; the Predators hope to extend their postseason streak to six.

Eleven-seed versus six-seed. Are the odds stacked against Arizona? Maybe on paper, but not so fast.

"To say we're an underdog -- I don't know if anyone's an underdog during this season," Taylor Hall said. "I think it's wide open. The team that embraces (this opportunity) the most is going to come out on top."

If anyone knows about underdog status, it's Brad Richardson. Richardson was a member of the 2012 Los Angeles Kings who shocked the league by winning the Stanley Cup as the eighth and lowest seed, toppling three heavily favored clubs along the way. 

The 2019-20 Coyotes are in a relatively similar position.

"I see a lot of the similarities (with this team) when I was with the Kings," Richardson said. "Really good goaltending and stingy defense. When we were playing our best hockey, we were very, very stingy. I think that's got to be our M.O. going into the playoffs in order to really give ourselves a chance. We definitely have some high-end players, but when we're playing our best hockey it's goaltending and out, and we go from there."

Video: Hockey is Back: Coyotes vs. Predators Begins Aug. 2

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SEASON SERIES

The Coyotes and Predators split their regular season series (1-1-0). A third game, scheduled for March 28 was canceled due to the pandemic.

Phil Kessel scored his first two goals as a Coyote in a 5-2 victory over Nashville on October 17 at Gila River Arena. Darcy Kuemper earned a 23-save win. Nashville goalie Juuse Saros surrendered four goals on 31 shots. The Coyotes recorded three power play goals, a season high. 

The Predators won the second game, 3-2, in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena. The Coyotes faced Predator goalie Pekka Rinne, who made 26 saves. Despite 38 saves, Antti Raanta was tagged with the loss.

Video: SAP by the Numbers: Coyotes vs Predators

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FAMILIARITY

The last time Rick Tocchet won a playoff series, he won the Stanley Cup.

That series win came against the Nashville Predators in 2017, Tocchet's final season as an assistant coach with the Penguins. Thirteen players remain from that Predators team.

"Phil (Kessel) and I, when we played (Nashville) in the Finals and beat them, the core of those guys are still there," Tocchet said. "Phil's been talking to our young guys about that, and we're doing a pretty good job with our pre-scout right now of what to expect from them." 

The Predators changed coaches in early January, hiring John Hynes to replace Peter Laviolette. The Coyotes haven't faced the Predators since, but Tocchet is familiar with Hynes, who was a part of the Penguins organization during Tocchet's first year in Pittsburgh in 2014-15. 

"John Hynes, he's an excellent coach," Tocchet said. "They may throw some different things at us. They've got (Roman) Josi, (Ryan) Ellis, (Mattias) Ekholm, all top-notch defensemen. And they've got some really quality forwards. I know that group pretty well. They came a couple games away from winning a Stanley Cup. They've got an experienced pedigree, those guys. You've just got to be ready for them." 

Similarly, the Coyotes' last playoff success came against the Predators in the 2012 Western Conference Semi-Final. The Coyotes defeated Nashville in five games. Three Predator players -- Josi, goalie Pekka Rinne, and Craig Smith -- played in that series.

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TWO TANDEMS

ARIZONA: Darcy Kuemper (.928) and Antti Raanta (.921) finished in the Top 10 in regular season save percentage among goaltenders with 24 or more appearances.

Since the 2017-18 season, Kuemper and Raanta are Nos. 1 and 2 in save percentage (.924) among goalies who have played at least 30 games. 

"Especially now, you need two excellent goalies," Rick Tocchet said. "We have that. If you're going to go all the way, you're going to need two goalies. They're both going to play, I think."

Kuemper is the Coyotes presumed No. 1 option. The Coyotes have back-to-back games once in the Nashville series. They are Games 2 and 3. The support of a second goaltender could be necessary.

"We've got a great setup where we've got two guys that can step in and play anytime," Kuemper said. "Two great goalies. From my perspective, I'm just going to work hard and be ready for the start of the playoffs here and be ready for every game." 

NASHVILLE: Juuse Saros and Rinne combined for a 25-save shutout in the Predators' exhibition against Dallas Thursday. Nashville has not named a No. 1 for the playoffs. Saros started the exhibition, but Rinne has started 89 consecutive Nashville playoff games.

Saros played in 40 regular season games, with 34 starts; Rinne played in 36 regular season games, with 35 starts. Saros was better in terms of save percentage (.914) and goals-against average (2.70). In his last 20 games (18 starts), Saros cemented the starting job with a 12-5-1 record, a 2.22 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. 

"We're fortunate in our organization to have amazing goalies," Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "Since Day One that I've been here, it's always been that way. The success (Rinne) has had speaks for itself, and (Saros) has been unbelievable these last couple years, coming in as a younger guy and really establishing himself. We're blessed to have two great guys. To us, I don't think it matters (who starts). We trust both and we're lucky to have them."

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GAME CHANGERS

ARIZONA: Taylor Hall led the Coyotes with 27 points in 35 games, after being acquired from the Devils in December. In 2018 with New Jersey, Hall averaged more than a point-per-game in his first playoff appearance, registering two goals and six points in five games.

"Taylor's a powerful guy," Tocchet said. "You need those powerful guys in the playoffs, a guy that can go down the wing and take it wide, take it to the net. He's got a hell of a one-timer, he's got a great shot. To win in the playoffs, you need powerful people, and he's one of those guys. He could be an X-factor for sure. He's got those abilities.

NASHVILLE: Norris Trophy candidate Roman Josi led the Predators with a career-high 65 points this season, 17 more than Nashville's second-leading scorer. Josi is only one of two NHL defensemen to lead his team in scoring. Rick Tocchet and his staff are focused on the star defenseman. 

"He's probably target No. 1 for us," Tocchet said. "He's a fourth man out there, he's going to be up the ice, he's an excellent offensive player, and he can defend, obviously. He's a guy that's hard to defend because you don't know where he is. We have to be really careful and keep an eye on him. You go down the list, and I think their top four defense corps is as good as any in the league."

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SPECIAL TEAMS

  • Power Play: ARI (19.2% - No. 18) | NSH (17.3% - No. 25)
  • Penalty Kill: ARI (82.7% - No. 5) | NSH (76.1% - No. 29)

ARIZONA: The Coyotes' penalty kill was one of the league's best this year; at times, their power play ranked in the Top 10.  

Derek Stepan, who skates on the Coyotes' power play units and is a staple on the penalty kill, knows that special teams play a massive role but that both teams are starting from ground zero.

"When you start Round 1 of the playoffs, everyone's power play and everyone's penalty kill is at zero percent," Stepan said. "It doesn't really matter what you did throughout the year. Power play and penalty kill are such a big part of playoffs. It's really easy for a power play to get hot and stay hot throughout the playoffs, and you can have a lot of success. On the flip side of things, you've got to keep the puck out of your net in the playoffs, and the penalty kill is absolutely massive. The two of them weigh a lot in playoff hockey. What we did during the regular season doesn't really matter. You've just got to get hot now and you've got to run a streak." 

NASHVILLE: The Predators' special teams were on fire at the end of the regular season. Nashville allowed just one power play goal during its final eight games, killing 21-of-22 penalties. It scored five power play goals during its final four games. 

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AGE AND EXPERIENCE

The Predators are the second-oldest team (28.5 years old) among the 24 Phase 4 rosters; the Coyotes rank No. 14 (27.4 years old).

Eleven players on the Coyotes' Phase 4 roster are aged 23 or younger; seven are expected to be in the Game 1 lineup.

"The young guys with their excitement and enthusiasm to play the game, that's what we're looking for," said assistant coach John MacLean. "I think we have a lot of young guys that can create something out of nothing. They come out of the pile with the puck and they can finish a game off. Keller can stickhandle in a phone booth and score a goal, which would be huge for us. In that environment, if they can harness that excitement about playing the game and keeping it under control, we have some difference-makers on our team that could give us the possibility to advance here." 

The Coyotes roster has a young core but there is a healthy balance of experience, leadership, and proven success. Tocchet rattled off a few names as proof. 

"You've got (Niklas Hjalmarsson), a three-time winner; you've got (Phil Kessel), a two-time winner; Brad Richardson's won, (Derek Stepan's) been in the finals, (Alex Goligoski) won. We've got some guys that have won hardware. They know the routine and what it takes. They're telling the young players what to expect."

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NEUTRAL SITE

The Coyotes' franchise is 4-2 in neutral-site games. The most recent neutral-site games were at O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, against the Bruins to open the 20010-19 season. The Coyotes and Bruins split a pair and Oliver Ekman-Larsson made his NHL debut.

The Predators are 1-2 in neutral-site games, including a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at Cotton Bowl Stadium in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

The Coyotes own a 16-3-4 record in Edmonton since 2010.

"Our team plays well in Edmonton, we enjoy it," said Tocchet. "They've got great ice, a great building. It's a great place to go play. So, for our team, we usually play well in that arena. I don't know if that's true or not, but we'll see what happens."

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UNIFORM APPROACH

The Coyotes opted for alternate jerseys for playoff home games.

A postseason team can choose its home game jerseys if it has an alternate dark uniform in its collection. The Coyotes had a choice between the primary brick red set or the trendy and nostalgic black Kachina kit.

The Coyotes wore Kachina jerseys during Thursday's exhibition. They will wear their alternate set for Games 3 and 4 of the Nashville series.

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SCHEDULE & BROADCAST INFO

All games will be televised on FOX Sports Arizona and/or FOX Sports Arizona Plus with play-by-play broadcaster Matt McConnell and color commentator Tyson Nash. Each broadcast will include "Coyotes Live" pre- and post-game shows hosted by Todd Walsh that run 30 minutes before and after the game.

Every game of the series can be heard on FOX Sports 910 AM, the Coyotes' flagship radio station. Bob Heethuis will provide play-by-play, with Paul Bissonnette providing color commentary.

Qualifying Round Schedule:

  • Game 1: Sunday, August 2 - 11:00 a.m. // FOX Sports Arizona
  • Game 2: Tuesday, August 4 - 11:30 a.m. // FOX Sports Arizona Plus
  • Game 3: Wednesday, August 5 - 11:30 a.m. // FOX Sports Arizona & FOX Sports Arizona Plus
  • *Game 4: Friday, August 7 - Time & Broadcast Channel TBD
  • *Game 5: Sunday, August 9 - Time & Broadcast Channel TBD

Out-of-market viewers can walso watch Game 1 on USA Network, and Game 2 and Game 3 on NBCSN or NHL Network.

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

NASHVILLE 

Filip Forsberg - Ryan Johansen - Viktor Arvidsson

Kyle Turris - Matt Duchene - Mikael Granlund

Rocco Grimaldi - Nick Bonino - Craig Smith

Calle Jarnkrok - Colton Sissons - Austin Watson

Roman Josi - Ryan Ellis

Mattias Ekholm - Dante Fabbro

Dan Hamhuis - Korbinian Holzer

Juuse Saros

Pekka Rinne

ARIZONA

Taylor Hall - Christian Dvorak - Conor Garland

Carl Soderberg - Nick Schmaltz - Phil Kessel

Lawson Crouse - Derek Stepan - Clayton Keller

Vinnie Hinostroza - Brad Richardson - Christian Fischer

Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Jason Demers

Jakob Chychrun - Alex Goligoski

Jordan Oesterle - Niklas Hjalmarsson

Darcy Kuemper

Antti Raanta

Lead Photo Credit: Dave Sandford - NHLI via Getty Images // Second Photo Credit: Norm Hall - NHLI via Getty Images // Third Photo Credit: Norm Hall - NHLI via Getty Images // Fourth Photo Credit: John Russell - NHLI via Getty Images // Fifth Photo Credit: John Russell - NHLI via Getty Images // Sixth Photo Credit: Norm Hall - NHLI via Getty Images // Seventh Photo Credit: John Russell - NHLI via Getty Images // Eighth Photo Credit: John Russell - NHLI via Getty Images // Ninth Photo Credit: Brian Babineau - NHLI via Getty Images // Tenth Photo Credit: Andy Devlin - NHLI via Getty Images // Eleventh Photo Credit: Andy Devlin - NHLI via Getty Images // Twelfth Photo Credit: John Russell - NHLI via Getty Images // Footer Photo Credit: John Russell - NHLI via Getty Images

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