The Nashville Predators and Arizona Coyotes will play each other in a best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifier series when the NHL season resumes. Though there is no date for the games to start, two NHL.com writers have already started the debate over which team has the edge in the series.
Shawn P. Roarke, Senior Director of Editorial
The Predators underachieved this season. That's not just my opinion, it's one shared by their general manager, David Poile, one of the smartest men in hockey. Poile, who has been around the NHL as a GM for the past 38 years, believes Nashville, which finished sixth in the Western Conference with a points percentage of .565, has another gear and will find it when play resumes. I can't argue with that. Centers Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen and forwards Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson each can be markedly better. If they are, the Predators will display the offense that has been missing this season. In goal, veteran Pekka Rinne (18-14-4, 3.17 goals-against average, .895 save percentage) was nowhere near the form that won him the Vezina Trophy in 2018. If he comes back from the pause refreshed, look out, Arizona!
Video: DAL@NSH: Duchene deflects Jarnkrok's shot for PPG
Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
If Shawn's going to draw the underachieving card, I'll play along. After all, forward Phil Kessel, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a trade on June 29, scored 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 70 games with the Coyotes after scoring 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) in 82 games last season. It's about time the 32-year-old begins working his big-game magic -- Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion, and has scored 77 points (33 goals, 44 assists) in 87 playoff games. Arizona, with a .529 points percentage this season, was considered a legitimate Cup contender after the acquisition of forward Taylor Hall on Dec. 16. But that vision blurred when goalie Darcy Kuemper sustained a lower-body injury on Dec. 19. Kuemper was a leading candidate to win the Vezina Trophy as top goalie in the NHL prior to his injury, but he's healthy now and ready to build on his impressive regular-season numbers (2.22 GAA, .929 save percentage). The Coyotes are the sleeping giant of the Western Conference.
Video: BUF@ARI: Kessel cleans up Goligoski shot on doorstep
I always knew you were a follower, Mike. So let me go in the opposite direction. The Predators have the best player in this series, and that's the tiebreaker for me. In my opinion, Roman Josi should win the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL. The 29-year-old is in his prime and can take over a game with his jaw-dropping combination of skill and savvy. He makes Nashville go at each end of the ice, playing 25:47 per game and leading the Predators in scoring with 65 points (16 goals, 49 assists) and shot attempts during 5-on-5 play with a plus-185, which ranks 14th in the League among defensemen. He has a fair bit of help on the blue line from Ryan Ellis and the underrated Mattias Ekholm. I don't know if defense will win the 2020 Stanley Cup championship, but it will be the difference in this round and that's where Nashville has a clear advantage.
Video: EDM@NSH: Josi tees up and hammers puck home
Respect your elders, Shawn. And respect what the Coyotes have going for them along the blue line as well. In addition to a healthy Kuemper, it doesn't hurt having veteran defensemen such as Alex Goligoski, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjalmarsson to offer the necessary support. Defense wins championships and Arizona is the better team in its own zone; it finished tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the third lowest goals-against average (2.61) in the regular season, and that was with their starting goalie out for two months. The Predators were tied for 19th in goals against (3.10). Special teams? Arizona was better on the power play (19.2 percent) than Nashville (17.3 percent) and significantly better on penalty kill (82.7 percent to 76.1 percent). Hall leads the Coyotes with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 35 games since the trade and I expect center Nick Schmaltz (45 points; 11 goals, 34 assists this season) and forwards Clayton Keller (44 points; 17 goals, 27 assists) and Conor Garland (39 points; 22 goals, 17 assists) to also produce in a big way. Coach Rick Tocchet will have his charges ready to go through a brick wall with maximum effort. Sorry Smashville; Arizona is primed for the upset.
Video: BUF@ARI: Ekman-Larsson scores shorthanded for ENG