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Coyotes-Preds could be a playoff preview

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators meet for the final time in the regular season on Wednesday night at Arena. The result could have a lot to do with whether they see each other again very soon.

Phoenix can wrap up fourth place in the Western Conference and home ice in the first-round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by beating Nashville – or collecting a total of two points in their final three games. But the Coyotes' first-round opponent could be one of three teams, including the Predators, who are battling with Los Angeles and Detroit for playoff position.

The Coyotes have only enjoyed a home-ice playoff advantage once since moving to Arizona. That was in 1999, when they lost to St. Louis in a hard-fought series that went right down to overtime in Game 7, with the Blues winning 1-0 on a goal by Pierre Turgeon. The Winnipeg Phoenix franchise has never been past the second round of the playoffs in its 40-year history, but a lot of franchise records have fallen this year at the hands of this unexpected team.

Phoenix had followed up a nine-game winning streak with a 1-3-1 slide before beating Edmonton in a shootout on Saturday. But in blowing a pair of one-goal leads and failing to score on nine power-play attempts against one of the NHL's worst penalty kills, the Coyotes are still searching for their A-game as the regular season draws to a close.

"This is going to be a playoff atmosphere and a fun game to play in," Phoenix defenseman Derek Morris said. "We want home ice, but we need to get momentum going into the playoffs. We're closing the season against three good teams (Nashville, Los Angeles and San Jose) and we have to get that edge that we want to have for what's coming. We need to tighten up our own end. We've let some things creep into our game that will hurt us in the playoffs and we have to sharpen up."

Not only are the Coyotes and Predators right next to each other in the standings, but their previous three meetings have been tight, low-scoring and hard-checking affairs. The Coyotes needed a hat trick from ex-Predator Scottie Upshall (now out for the season with a torn ACL) to win the first meeting in Phoenix (4-2) on Jan. 21, and the last two games were decided in shootouts including one that followed 65 minutes of scoreless hockey. More is expected this time, especially with a lot on the line.

"You look at the lineups and the teams are very similar," Phoenix defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "They are structured, they work hard and they are well-coached. Like us, they don't have any 50-goal scorers and they have to win with a team game. There are still a few days for all the (seeding) to play out, but we could see them again soon."

Nashville will be bolstered by the return of center Jason Arnott, who is expected to play Wednesday night after missing the last eight games with a head injury. And the Predators have been known to ruin a party atmosphere in this building before – they beat the Coyotes 3-1 in the very first game at (then-Glendale) Arena in 2003.

"They have great goaltending (in Pekka Rinne) and (Ilya) Bryzgalov has been phenomenal for us all year. It's an even match when we play," Morris said. "They come hard and they love to get the puck deep and that’s our game. One or two mistakes can really be costly, because both teams know how to capitalize."

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