When Nashville and Phoenix meet in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals it will mark the first time the two franchises square off in the post-season, with the series winner advancing to its first-ever Conference Finals.
There wasn’t much to differentiate the two teams during the regular season series with the Coyotes taking both games in Nashville and the Preds claiming both contests in Phoenix. Each team posted a three-goal win and each edged out a one-goal victory. However, three of the four series meetings occurred early in the season, with just one coming after the Trade Deadline, a 5-4 Preds shootout win on March 12.
The parallels between the two franchises are many --- the Coyotes have been in Phoenix for 16 years, the Preds in Nashville for 14; the coaches are friends in the off-season and share similar “X’s & O’s” philosophies; both teams lean on balanced offensive production --- and the recent successes mirror each other. Nashville has made the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, including the last three years; Phoenix has made the playoffs three straight seasons as well.
Now on the pre-series musings…
Limit the Mistakes – Nashville and Phoenix are very similar in that they both do a great job of creating offense off of opponent’s mistakes. Both teams like to play tight defensive systems, wait for their opponent to over-commit, and then quickly strike on the counter-attack. To be successful both teams depend on winning one-on-one battles and making smart decisions with the puck. Whichever team is more patient in the series and does the best job of limiting puck errors and giveaways will be in a very good position to claim the series.
Offense From The Defense – Both teams, Nashville and Phoenix, like to activate their defensemen into the offensive flow. Nashville has some big shots from the point, notably Shea Weber and Ryan Ellis, but Phoenix likes to have its defensemen join the rush in transition and jump down low during offensive sequences. And with Oliver Ekman-Larsson & Keith Yandle for Phoenix and Ryan Suter & Roman Josi with Nashville, this series will feature some of the most mobile defensemen in the league.
In The Crease – Phoenix starting goaltender Mike Smith played in only one of the four regular season series meetings between the Preds and Coyotes, a 5-4 Nashville shootout win on March 12. Instead it was backup Jason LaBarbera who was in the net for three of the four games this season, including both Phoenix wins. Prior to this season Smith spent three seasons in the Eastern Conference with the Tampa Bay Lightning, so there is not a lot of history there between Smith and the Nashville shooters, which might give Smith a slight edge at the onset of the series. By the same token, so much of goaltending success is the mental frame of mind; if Smith has a shaky start to the series he doesn’t have a past history of success versus the Preds to lean back on mentally. And if Nashville gets a lead in the series, don’t be too surprised if – because of his regular season wins at Bridgestone Arena – Phoenix gives LaBarbera a chance.
SEASON SERIES THREE STARS:
1) PHX G Jason LaBarbera – 2-1-0, 2.01 Goals Against Average, .931 SV%;
2) NSH F Martin Erat – 1 goal, 3 assists, +3 in 3 games; averaged 19:38 ice time; missed the first meeting of the season (PHX win)
3) NSH F Craig Smith – 1 goal, 2 assists in 4 games; struggled in the first meeting of the season but had an impact in the other 3 games