Posted April 26, 2012 on AP on Fox
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One team has a goalie who plays the crease like a spider in a web, multiple players who can score and a hard-hitting, defense-first mentality. The other team ... well, it's pretty much the same thing. After bogging down two of the NHL's most skilled teams in the opening round, the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes face off in what will be a two-of-a-kind Western Conference semifinal. Game 1 is Friday night in the desert and the only way to tell the teams apart will be by their jersey colors. ''We really are mirror images of each other,'' Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. ''We play a similar style, very good defense and work ethic, and you don't get a free night with Nashville. They'll be tough games. This will be an interesting series.'' The Coyotes had a raucous ride into the second round of the playoffs, re-energizing a desert fan base that had become hockey complacent over the past few seasons. Relying on a tight-checking style, an everybody-chips-in mentality and superb goaltending from Mike Smith, Phoenix won its first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise. The Coyotes capped it by surviving a brutal series against Chicago, mucking it up against the fleet Blackhawks to win in six games, their first trip out of the opening round since 1987. Nashville finished ahead of Phoenix in the regular season - six more wins, seven more points - but was fourth in the West because the Coyotes won the Pacific Division. Like the Coyotes, the Predators have a superb goalie in Pekka Rinne, prefer to keep games close and get scoring production from all through the roster. Nashville opened the playoffs by dispatching the fast-skating Detroit Red Wings in five games, an outcome that wasn't surprising so much because the Predators won, but because of how quickly and seemingly easily they did it. ''They're a team similar to us and we know it's going to be tough,'' Nashville center Mike Fisher said. The toughest part might be finding ways to score against Smith and Rinne. Phoenix's goalie was no average Smith, putting together a top-notch season after the Coyotes were criticized for tabbing him as their replacement for Ilya Brzygalov. An athletic 6-foot-4, Smith set career-highs in pretty much every category there is, finishing third in the NHL with a save percentage of .930, tied for third with eight shutouts and fourth in wins with 38. Smitty was even better in the playoffs, at times carrying the Coyotes by himself while they tried to keep up with the swarming Blackhawks. The only time Chicago was effective against Smith was when they put all-out pressure against him late in games, leading to three goals that sent games to overtime. Other than that, Smith was dominant, finishing the series with a .950 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average, clinching the series in Game 6 by turning away 39 shots for his first career playoff shutout. ''We've obviously got to do what we can to generate chances in front of Smith because he's been great for them,'' Predators captain Shea Weber said. ''He's a big part of their success.'' Same could be said for Rinne. The 6-foot-5 Finn carried Nashville during the regular season, leading the league with 43 wins, while posting a 2.39 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Like Smith, he controlled the opening round, using his agility and big frame to hold the high-scoring Red Wings to nine goals in five games for the lowest postseason goals-against average in team history. Rinne also had the best save percentage (.944) in Nashville's playoff history and on Wednesday was named one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy for the second straight season. ''He's an unbelievable goalie, just an athletic guy that competes as hard as anyone out there,'' Smith said. ''We're going to have to elevate our game, try to get as much traffic, people and pucks to the net as we can, and hopefully we'll find a way to get a pass in.'' Making it tighter will be the way these teams play in front of their goalies. Nashville coach Barry Trotz and Phoenix's Dave Tippett both take disciplined approaches to the game, emphasizing stay-at-home positioning and counterattacking to win games. The players have bought in and are rarely in the wrong spots, leaving opposing teams without much room from the neutral zone back. Neither team has an elite top-line scorer like Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin or Chicago's Jonathan Toews, relying more on a pack mentality. Phoenix has the top goal-scorer between the teams - Radim Vrbata had 35 during the regular season - but Nashville had seven players score at least 40 points. Put those things together and it could be a series with scores like 1-0, 2-1, with plenty of overtimes mixed in. ''Goals will probably be hard to come by,'' Tippett said. At least the teams know what to expect. They see it in practice every day.
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