By Seth Lake
A full week after becoming the first team to advance to the Conference Semifinals round of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 4th seeded Nashville Predators will open up their second round series on the road Friday night facing the 3rd seeded Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona.
Will Hal Gill return to the Nashville lineup Friday night?
Playing an opponent coming off their first playoff series win since moving to Phoenix in 1996, the Coyotes, like Nashville, are built from the net out with strong goaltending, a smothering team defense, and a solid work ethic. The Predators should see a team in the position they were last season entering the second round against the Vancouver Canucks. While on paper, the edge likely goes to Nashville, the game is played on the ice within the confines of a 200’ x 85’ rink where things are never as clear.
Solving Mike Smith– While the league is familiar with two-time Vezina trophy nominee Pekka Rinne manning the nets for Nashville, many are just beginning to recognize Mike Smith in Phoenix. Boasting an unbelievably quick glove hand like Rinne and a large frame in the net, Smith has come into his own this season after joining the team from Tampa Bay last summer.
Under the guidance of Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke, the biggest adjustment they have made in Smith’s game has been to cut back on how far he comes out of the crease to challenge shooters using his size to compensate and allowing him an extra fraction of a second to make each save. The adjustment has paid off for Smith, who, after putting up the best numbers of his career in the regular season, is brimming with confidence heading into the second round.
Neither goalie in this series will be beat by many straight shots. If they see them, they will make the save. What Nashville will need to do to beat Smith is to get traffic in his line of sight, setting screens at the top of the crease, and utilizing skaters through the slot to affect his line of sight to the puck. If the Predators are successful at distracting Smith, they will likely generate a few goals, but more importantly they will generate rebounds and create second chance opportunities that they will need to cash in on to win the series.
Establishing The Forecheck – It is a staple of Nashville Predators hockey. An aggressive forecheck is a key part of the foundation of what is affectionately known as “The Predators Way”. In their first round series clinching game against Detroit, the Predators were able to create both goals off turnovers forced by the forechecking of the Gabriel Bourque – David Legwand – Alexander Radulov line and will need to continue to generate scoring opportunities off the forecheck in order to win in the second round.
Phoenix will present the Predators with a couple of challenges in that regard however beginning with the puck-handling capabilities of Mike Smith in net. A descendant of the Marty Turco School of Stickhandling for Goalies in Dallas, when the puck is dumped around the back of the Phoenix net, Smith commonly acts as a third defenseman collecting the puck and making the first pass out to his teammates to set in motion their breakout to clear the zone and go on the attack. In order to beat this, Nashville will need to pay attention to how they dump the puck into the Phoenix end of the rink utilizing cross corner and soft dump-ins designed to keep the puck in the corners away from Smith and allowing the forecheckers to skate in and make a play.
Another facet of the Coyotes game that will challenge the Predators attempts to establish their forecheck is the pace and the commitment Phoenix has coming back hard into their defensive zone to outnumber their opponent and win battles. The Predators will need to be quick to establish pressure on the puck when they dump it in and also move into position with their second and third forecheckers to provide support on the puck and win any battles for loose pucks created.
Controlling the Neutral Zone – Where the Coyotes create most of their offense at even-strength is in transition on the counter attack looking to create a rush off of every turnover no matter how deep in their end of the rink. Upon recognizing a turnover, Phoenix stretches their wingers looking to push back the defense and open up the neutral zone for their teammates to join the rush with a head full of steam.
To go along with speedy wingers on each line, Phoenix also likes to take advantage of their mobile defense having them look to jump into the rush at every opportunity to create an outnumbered attack and generate second and third waves to their attack in transition. In order to combat this, the Predators will need to pay close attention to the gap through the neutral zone making sure to keep a third forward high to support against a quick transition and limit turnovers above the faceoff dots in the offensive zone.
When Phoenix gets their speed going through the neutral zone they are able to generate momentum getting their opponent back on their heels and allowing them to create scoring chances. The Predators will need to make sure to backcheck hard through the middle of the ice picking up the Phoenix rush and providing support to the defensemen allowing them to step up at or before the blue line to separate the man from the puck and kill the quick transition attack of the Coyotes.
Winning the Special Teams War – During the regular season the Predators were one of three teams (Vancouver and Pittsburgh) to finish the season ranked in the top 10 of the NHL in both power play (1st – 21.6%) and penalty killing success (10th – 83.6%). They are the only one of those three teams still alive in the postseason. The Phoenix Coyotes finished the regular season with the 29th ranked power play in the league (13.6%), however in their first round series against Chicago, the Coyotes converted on 21.0% of their power play opportunities helping lead them to the second round.
Nashville’s regular season success on the power play didn’t translate over to their first round series with Detroit where they went just 2 of 22 on the power play (including 0 for 15 at Bridgestone Arena). Looking back on their regular season series against the Red Wings, one shouldn’t have been surprised as they went just 3 for 17 against Detroit in six games. In their four prior meetings with Phoenix this season they went a combined 1 for 11 against the NHL’s 8th ranked penalty kill (85.5%).
Winning the special teams battle in this series will go a long way to winning the series. It won’t necessarily be simply about the number of goals scored in the series, but will be something to watch game by game as each team will look to capitalize on any man advantage to turn it into a momentum change and will each look towards a successful penalty kill as an opportunity to seize the momentum as well. Scoring goals on the power play would help the Predators move forward towards the next round, but if they are unable to find success with their power play a strong series from the penalty kill keeping Phoenix off the board would be just as good.
Managing the Roster – With the Milwaukee Admirals season coming to an end on Wednesday night, the Predators will likely bolster their lineup with a couple of recalls this week adding to a roster already featuring 3 goaltenders, 8 defensemen, and 18 forwards. Additions withstanding, Predators head coach Barry Trotz will continue to face difficult decisions each night as he has throughout the playoffs on which combinations of players give him the best chance to succeed each night.
Through the first round there were only two spots in the lineup that saw players rotated in and out of the lineup, but throughout the series every line except for the Sergei Kostitsyn – Mike Fisher – Martin Erat unit saw some type of shuffling before settling in and putting forth a dominant effort in the series clinching Game 5 victory last Friday night. Craig Smith made his NHL playoff debut in the series finale putting forth a strong effort on the fourth line alongside Paul Gaustad and Brandon Yip and has stayed there this week as the team prepared in Nashville prior to flying to Phoenix on Thursday.
Up front, Coach Trotz will have the option of inserting Matt Halischuk, Colin Wilson, or Jordin Tootoo among others should the combinations need adjusting throughout the series, putting him in a much better position than his Phoenix counterpart who lost Raffi Torres for the remainder of the playoffs due to suspension and has a couple of players nursing injuries from the opening round.
Acquired to add veteran playoff experience and ease the burden on Shea Weber and Ryan Suter during the playoff run, Hal Gill missed the entire opening round of the playoffs due to a lower body injury sustained in the next to last game of the regular season. After skating with the team in full practices for over a week, Gill appears to be ready to join the team’s playoff run skating alongside Francis Bouillon in practices this week. In his absence, Jack Hillen and Ryan Ellis saw limited minutes with Hillen getting time on the penalty kill early in the series and Ellis quarterbacking the second power play unit in the final three games of the first round.
Gill will be eased back into the lineup, likely seeing third pairing minutes at even-strength to start Game 1, his addition to the lineup for Nashville will be a key factor in this series giving Coach Trotz another veteran defenseman to lean upon late in games and on the penalty kill helping to elevate the games of the rest of the defense corps by lessening the burden on everyone.