The Sunbelt Showdown (or the Balsillie Bowl, if you prefer), should be a classic goaltender's duel with one of these two franchises advancing to the Conference Finals for the first time in their respective histories.
This match-up will also feature the two worst possession teams still alivePhoenix was 19th in the regular season at 49.2% with Nashville 29th at 46.1%. They also both got destroyed possession-wise in the first round, Nashville finishing 14th at 42.5% and Phoenix dead last with 41.1%. I hope you like dump-ins.
Jonathan Willis and I recently collaborated on an ESPN piece explaining both the challenges and opportunities facing the Nashville Predators on their quest for the Stanley Cup, many of which may apply equally to their opponents as well.
Every year, we promote the importance of puck possessionit's what helped us predict that a first-place Minnesota Wild and a last-place St. Louis Blues were likely to swap positions by year's end, and that the Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators weren't the first-round underdogs everybody thought.
That being said, there must always be a few statistical outliers, just one or two teams that sit in their own zones, let their opponents control the puck and drive the play, and yet still emerge victorious through unsustainably high sharp-shooting and puck stopping. This series pits two such teams against one another, and one must fall.
Outshot by: 52% 38%
Shooting %: 10.7% 11.2%
Save %: .950 .944
PDO: 1.057 1.056
Both teams were ridiculously outshot in the first round, but enjoyed high shooting percentages and unbelievable goaltending which, both added together into PDO, paint a picture of two teams hotter than even last year's Stanley Cup champion Bruins (1.042)at least one of whom will have to come crashing down to earth this week. But which one? Let's dig in.
Phoenix Offense vs. Nashville Defense
Phoenix Coyotes Offense: -7.2 GVT (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Defense: -1.0 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Goaltending: +13.3 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Total: Phoenix Coyotes, -19.5 GVT
Though the Coyotes offense is spread out fairly evenly across three lines, which gave them eight forwards with either 10 goals or 30 points this season, most of their scoring punch is centered around veterans Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata, and Shane Doan. Doan and Whitney played like monsters in the first round, co-leading the team with 17 shots and leading all forwards in ice-time, but the three were effectively shut down by the Blackhawks, managing just two goals and six points between themfortunately, the remaining forwards shot at an amazing 20.6% clip on poor Corey Crawford.
Coach Dave Tippett really tilted the ice in the first round, making Boyd Gordon, Mikkel Boedker, and Lauri Korpikoski skate uphill (all three started in the offensive zone under 30% of the time), which mostly helped out Doan, Raffi Torres, and Daymond Langkow, and left roughly even splits for Whitney, Gilbert Brule, and Martin Hanzal.
Obviously, the toughest challenge facing them (outside the goalie crease) is the NHL's elite defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, who together play over 27 minutes a game6 more than anyone else. While there are those who think this pairing gives Nashville the edge, especially with the exceptional first round play of Kevin Klein and the return of Hal Gill, their lack of depth makes us more cautious. Jack Hillen and Ryan Ellis, who filled in for Gill in the first round, playing under eight and six minutes per game respectively, even lower than Bouillon's 13, were the only ones not trusted to start in their own end at least half the time. Long story short, Weber better not wash the glass with any faces this round, because he's far too valuable a player to be sitting in the press box.
Up front, the Nashville Predators really lean on their proven two-way veteransMike Fisher was their even-strength ice-time leader in the regular season, and along with Martin Erat trails right behind David Legwand in the postseason.
Behind them, the newly acquired Paul Gaustad has effectively taken over the tough, defensive minutes for the departed Jerred Smithsonhis offensive zone start percentage against Detroit was just 17.6%! This frees up easier ice-time for kids like Craig Smith and Gabriel Bourque, and the offensive-minded Europeans like Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Radulov, and the Brostitsyns. Look for Phoenix to try to get more favorable match-ups against these lines while at home.
Of course, this could all be window-dressing as this series is ultimately a goaltending showdown. Pekka Rinne stopped 94.4% of the shots against Detroit and has proven himself year after year. While someone is going to have a sharp regression to the mean, it's unlikely to be Nashville's multi-time Vezina finalist.
Advantage: Nashville Predators
Nashville Offense vs. Phoenix Defense
Nashville Predators Offense: +13.8 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Defense: -3.5 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Goaltending: +25.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, -7.7 GVT
Even with the addition of Alexander Radulov and Sergei Kostitsyn, Nashville's offense is modest, but deep enough to prove effective against an excellent Detroit defense. Radulov helped rookie Gabriel Bourque lead the way with three goals, while scoring five points of his own with a plus/minus of +5.
David Legwand scored a pair, as did Kevin Klein and Shea Weber, with his team-leading 18 shots, which were second among defensemen in the first round despite just five games.
On defense, Phoenix relied heavily on Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Michal Rozsival, who started in their own zone two-thirds of the time, allowing the more offensive-minded Keith Yandle and Derek Morris to get more time in Chicago's zone.
Late in the season, Phoenix shored up defensively by picking up Antoine Vermette to join Lauri Korpikoski and their own low-cost no-name defensive gem Boyd Gordon, all of whom played effectively in the first roundVermette even led the team with four goals.
Despite Phoenix's strong defensive play, it will all come down to goaltending in the end, with the weight of the series on the hefty shoulders of Mike Smith, who led the league in regular season GVT, and stopped 95% of Chicago's shots in the first round. Imagine the powerhouse Tampa Bay would have been had he broken out a year sooner.
Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes
Phoenix Power Play vs. Nashville Penalty Kill
Phoenix Coyotes Power Play: -9.7 GVT (Rank: 28th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Penalty Kill: +1.7 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Total: Phoenix Coyotes, -11.4 GVT
Phoenix used Ekman-Larsson and Yandle against Chicago, with a little Morris thrown in for good measure. Up front, they primarily leaned on Whitney, Vrbata, and Doan, spelled occasionally by Vermette, Hanzal, and Langkow. Vermette managed three power play goals in those secondary opportunitiesEkman-Larsson got their other.
The return of Hal Gill alongside Kevin Klein, replacing Roman Josi, should take some pressure off their top shutdown pair of Suter and Weber, who all together allowed a total of four power play goals against Detroit. Up front, Paul Gaustad and the highly underrated Nick Spaling kill penalties with a little help from secondary options like Mike Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn.
Advantage: Nashville Predators
Nashville Power Play vs. Phoenix Penalty Kill
Nashville Predators Power Play: +12.4 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Penalty Kill: +7.4 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, 5.0 GVT
Nashville scored twice with the man advantage in the first round, one from Shea Weber, and the other by David Legwand. It may not look like a fearsome power play, but it's deep, it was the NHL's finest in the regular season and was further boosted by the late addition of Alexander Radulov and the reunion of the Brostitsyns.
The Coyotes penalty killing is as deep as Nashville's power play, but not quite as good. You could perhaps make a case for Ekman-Larsson as their best player in the first round who doesn't share a last name with a character from Highway to Heaven. The talented young blueliner was trusted with 26 minutes per game, four minutes than anyone else, and was a key factor in limiting Chicago to just a single power play goal.
Joining him were Lauri Korpikoski and Boyd Gordon up front, with some veteran assistance from Daymond Langkow and Shane Doan, and primarily Rozsival, Morris, and Klesla on defense.
Advantage: Nashville Predators
Season Series Results
Coyotes won the season series 2-1, with another game ending regulation and overtime in a draw (Nashville won the skills competition for the extra point). In all, Phoenix outscored Nashville by the slim margin of 12-11, which you'll also note wasn't exactly low-scoring.
That slim victory was actually with Jason LaBarbera as their primary starter in the regular season; only once did the Predators face Mike Smith, which ended regulation and overtime in a draw.
Phoenix also enjoys home-ice advantage, which means an extra game to try to avoid matching their top players against the Weber/Suter pairing and against their questionable depth defensemen and/or offensive-minded Europeans instead.
Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes
Injuries and Intangibles
The Predators have the intangible advantages here, playing with extra rest and facing a Coyotes team that really paid a physical toll against the Blackhawks.
While Nashville is looking to the imminent return of a healthy Hal Gill, the Phoenix Coyotes are struggling through the day-to-day injuries to Michal Rozsival, Radim Vrbata, Lauri Korpikoski, Martin Hanzal, and who knows who else. Phoenix is the league's second-oldest team, and they have to be feeling the fatigue.
They're also understandably playing without the services of Raffi Torres, who had given them three players with Stanley Cup experience, whereas everyone on Nashville except Hal Gill wasn't even aware that there was still hockey in May. It's not like Phoenix has a wealth of playoff experience beyond Vermette and Whitneyamazingly, this will be the first time Adrian Aucoin and Shane Doan have seen the second round, despite 19 playoff appearances between them.
We've got some bad news for Nashville Predators fans, because my predictions about the team tend to be wrong, and we've got them pegged as the favorite here.
Halfway through the season, we said they were a poor possession team that would soon regress to a fight for a playoff position (whoops), and just recently, we said they'd lose to Detroitthe only blemish on my 10-series record writing review for Hockey Prospectusand now we've acknowledged their good fortune of drawing Phoenix in the second round, and are picking them to actually win. Keep your fingers crossed!
Predators in seven games
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.