GLENDALE – On the eve of Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Coyotes and the Nashville Predators, here are five things to keep an eye on as this series unfolds:
1.DUELING GOALIES: This series features two of the NHL’s top goalies in Mike Smith and Pekka Rinne. Both ranked in the top 10 in the League this season in games played, wins, save percentage and shutouts. Rinne recently was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and deservedly so. Smith was left off that list but was outstanding this season nonetheless. Knowing how competitive Smith is, I expect him to play with a chip on his shoulder and looking to one-up his counterpart in the other goal.
2. SEEING STARS: The Coyotes beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference quarterfinals despite the fact they received only two goals and four assists, collectively, from their top three scorers in the regualr season: Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan. That simply won’t cut it against a defensive-minded team such as Nashville and Doan, for one, knows it. “We definitely think there is another level we need to get to,” Doan said. “You look at the forwards up front and we got unbelievable contributions from everyone who stepped up and did their jobs. But nobody really went beyond what you expect of them. Now we need guys to go beyond what you expect of them. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
3. POSSESSING THE PUCK: The Coyotes advanced to the conference semifinals despite being outshot, 241-159, by the Blackhawks in the quarterfinals. Without question, Phoenix must possess the puck more vs. Nashville so Smith doesn’t have to face 40.2 shots per game as he did vs. Chicago. Coyotes G.M. Don Maloney said it succinctly when he said: “They’ve got depth everywhere in their lineup and they’ve got a terrific goaltender (so) we’re going to have to find a way to have the puck more and get more pucks on net. It’s a challenge.”
4. SIMILAR STYLES: The Coyotes and Predators are known around the NHL as little engines that could, if you will. As small-market teams with modest payrolls, the clubs are known for being well-coached teams that succeed because of hard work as opposed to teams that succeed because of their elite-level talent. The question is which team will prevail in a seven-game series between teams so alike, and what will be the keys to success for that team. Maloney said he's eager to watch it unfold. “We really are mirror images of each other. We play a similar style; very good defense, good work ethic… this will be an interesting series.”
5. MAKING HOME SWEETER: The Coyotes have reached new heights this season by reaching the conference semifinals for the first time since moving to Arizona in 1996. To take the story further, Phoenix will somehow have to improve on its home record in the postseason. The Coyotes have won only two of nine playoff games played at Jobing.com Arena the past three seasons and with home-ice advantage in hand in this series - and possibly the next one if they win and Los Angeles beats St. Louis - they will have to start winning more often in Glendale.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Contact Dave Vest at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @davest4yotes.