Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nashville vs. Phoenix: Who has the edge?

The Nashville Predators will square off with the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal series on Friday to kick off the second round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Nashville was able to dispose of the Detroit Red Wings in five games in the first round, while the Coyotes were able to better the Blackhawks in a six-game series that saw five overtime periods.

Coming into this series, the main focus has been put on the goaltending matchup. Mike Smith has been sensational for Phoenix all season long, and was the most valuable player for the Coyotes in the first round against Chicago. Pekka Rinne, who has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the second consecutive season, was stellar for the Predators in their first round series against Detroit. It would seem that goals are going to be hard to come by for both teams.

In the regular season, the Coyotes were led by Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata from an offensive standpoint. Whitney put up 77 points in the regular season at the age of 39, and Vrbata led the Coyotes in goals with 35 on the year. However, Phoenix got scoring throughout their lineup in their first round series against the Blackhawks.

Keith Yandle has emerged as one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. Yandle had 43 points in the regular season for the Coyotes, and racked up five assists in the first round. Mikkel Boedker scored two game-winning goals for Phoenix in overtime in the first round, and Antoine Vermette scored four goals in the series to push the Coyotes over the top. The Coyotes have a lot of depth scoring that is capable of breaking loose on any given night.

Alexander Radulov led the Predators in points in their first round series against the Red Wings with five. However, Gabriel Bourque and Kevin Klein were the ones who stole the spotlight for Nashville. Bourque scored three goals in his first ever playoff series in the NHL, while Klein scored two key goals for the Predators in the Motor City that played an instrumental role in Nashville's two wins at Joe Louis Arena.

Patric Hornqvist, who was Nashville's leading goal scorer in the regular season with 27 goals, was held without a goal in the first round against Detroit. His play is going to be crucial for Nashville in this series because his speciality is screening the goalie by planting himself in front of the net. With the way that Smith has been playing for the Coyotes lately, he's going to stop nearly every puck that he sees. Hornqvist's job is to make sure that he doesn't see it.

These two teams play a very similar style. Defense is going to be the primary focus in this series. Both teams are going to be defensively responsible, and both goaltenders are going to give their team a chance to win. The key to this series is going to be opportunistic scoring. That's where Radulov comes in for the Predators.

Radulov is one of the most highly skilled offensive players in the world. He played well in the first round against Detroit, but there is still another level that his game can reach. Since coming back to the NHL, Radulov has shown his innate ability to be a true difference-maker for the Predators. When the game is on the line, Radulov thrives. That is going to be key for the Predators in this series.

Series Prediction:

One of the biggest keys to this series will be how the Predators respond to the long layoff in between the first and second round. Last year, they didn't respond well in Game 1 against Vancouver and they lost the series. What did that experience teach them? Game 1 in Phoenix on Friday will determine the answer to that question.

This Phoenix team has several qualities that are similar to the 2011 version of the Predators. The Coyotes have just made it out of the first round for the first time since they moved to Phoenix. Will they be able to respond better than last year's Nashville team?

Meanwhile, Nashville's mindset is totally different than it was a year ago. They expect to win, and they are going to be disappointed by anything less than a Stanley Cup championship. There is no hoopla surrounding this season's Nashville team just for making it out of the first round of the playoffs. The experience that was gained in last season's second round matchup with Vancouver could prove to be huge for the Predators.

The Predators are simply a deeper team than the Coyotes, and they're hungry. Nashville feels they have a team that is capable of putting together a magical postseason run. Look for the Predators to win this series in six games.

(Photo Credit: Leanne Charles)

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