Waking up Monday morning, the Nashville Predators find themselves staring squarely into the face of adversity down 2-0 in their best of seven Western Conference Semifinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes after dropping Game 2 by a 5-3 final on Sunday night in Glendale, Arizona.
For the second game in a row, the Coyotes got off to a quick start scoring the opening goal. As they did in Game 1, however, the Predators answered back and the teams headed to the locker room tied 1-1.
The difference in Game 2 was in the 2nd period, where the Coyotes got an early lead and then scored back-to-back goals for the first time in this series to take a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the night. Nashville was able to score twice more, but were unable to sustain momentum and fell down to a 2-0 series deficit.
It is said that a series does not begin in the Stanley Cup playoffs until a team loses at home. The Predators will need to avoid doing just that as the teams drop the puck on Game 3 Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena.
Slow Starts - After admitting to being rusty after a week-long layoff prior to Game 1, the Predators entered Game 2 needing to get off to a quick start. While the energy was there, the results did not follow as Phoenix took a 1-0 lead 8:32 into the 1st period when Keith Yandle jumping in from the point caused a breakdown in the defensive coverage eventually allowing Antoine Vermette to sneak in on the back door for a easy goal.
During the Predators playoff run this season, the team scoring the first goal of the game is 7-0. On Sunday night, Phoenix improved to 4-1 in the playoffs this year when scoring the first goal of the game. There is no doubt that scoring the first goal of the game on Wednesday night in Game 3 is of paramount importance for the Predators who need to rebuild their confidence and have yet had the experience of playing from ahead against the Coyotes.
Second Period Woes – In his post-game press conference last night, when asked about the production of the power play, Predators head coach Barry Trotz gave credit to the unit for going 2 for 2, but turned the attention quickly to the fact that the success on special teams has not been able to overcome being outscored 8-3 at even-strength in the first two games of the series. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the 2nd periods of Games 1 and 2 where the Predators have been outscored 5-1 while playing 5 on 5.
During the regular season the 2nd period was the best for the Predators outscoring their opponents 72-55 for a +17 goal differential. In the playoffs that success has not carried over being outscored 5-9 in the 2nd periods of their 7 playoff games thus far. It is the only period in which the Predators have a negative goal differential in the postseason outscoring their opponent’s 5-4 in 1st periods and 9-4 in 3rd periods.
The reason for the Coyotes success in the 2nd period of this series can largely be attributed to forcing, then capitalizing on chances created off of turnovers utilizing their quick counterattacks. Nowhere was this more evident than on Sunday night when all three Phoenix goals resulted off the rush.
Due to the long change during the 2nd period, puck management is critical in the middle frame. Moving forward, the Predators must do a better job of managing the puck in the 2nd period and avoiding turnovers in places from which the Coyotes can jump onto the attack.
Need for Net Presence – Of the 6 goals scored by the Predators in this series, all of them have come as a result of having a net presence in front of Mike Smith’s cage. Brandon Yip scored the first goal of the series for Nashville driving hard to win a battle for a loose puck after an odd carom off the glass support in the corner. Andrei Kostitsyn scored his first goal of the series cashing in on the rebound of a point shot with Patric Hornqvist standing in front creating a goal mouth scramble. Martin Erat scored the game-tying goal late in the 3rd period of Game 1 again off the rebound of a point shot with Hornqvist standing in front of Smith.
Scoring in Game 2 was no different as Kostitsyn got his 2nd goal of the series driving hard to the net on a rush and putting a deke on Smith just outside the crease. Again, the final two goals on Sunday night came with Hornqvist screening in front of Smith, one going off his leg and the other straight in through his screen.
The need for a net presence is clear. Smith is playing with a lot of confidence right now and is going to stop the puck if he sees the shot. Hornqvist has been at the net causing traffic for Smith to deal with on 4 of Nashville’s 6 goals in the series. Nashville’s best chances to score in the series have all come from simple plays around the net. In order to come back in this series, the Predators are going to need to continue to go to the net, getting traffic in front of Smith on every attempt, but most importantly the team will need to bear down and bury their scoring chances to play from ahead and control the tempo of the game.
Faceoffs Remain Concern – After getting dominated 46-32 in the faceoff circle in Game 1, the Predators committed to improving that area of their game on Sunday night and it showed, however it remains a key concern returning home to Nashville for Game 3 on Wednesday night. In Game 2, there was more commitment from both the centers bearing down to win faceoffs and also the wingers coming in to win 50/50 pucks that required more of a team effort, but just as they did in Game 1, the Coyotes were able to score a key goal off a faceoff when Antoine Vermette cleanly won a faceoff back to Derek Morris in the 3rd period allowing him to put a shot on goal that Shane Doan deflected past Pekka Rinne in the slot.
The Predators won the overall faceoff battle 38-35 on Sunday night with Mike Fisher (15-8, 65%) and Gaustad (8-4, 67%) leading the way and no center being less than 40% on draws. However, many more players were kicked out of the circle on Sunday night due to false starts stemming from the team’s anxiousness leading wingers to take 12 faceoffs in the game, going 4-8 (33%).
Faceoff coverage was addressed by the Predators in practice prior to Game 5 of their first round series against Detroit and will likely again be a focus for the team when they return to practice in Nashville before Game 3.
Lineup Adjustments – Game 1 on Friday night marked the return of Hal Gill to the defense corps after missing the opening series due to injury. Game 2 on Sunday night was Colin Wilson’s first chance to play in the postseason this year entering the lineup to replace Craig Smith on the 4th line with Paul Gaustad and Brandon Yip. Wilson was inserted to provide a big-bodied power forward presence to the line and finished the night with a shot on goal and a hit in 9:04 of ice time.
Wilson’s best play of the night, though, came in the 2nd period coming out of second TV timeout of the period when Trotz began to shuffle the lineup and Sergei Kostitsyn joined the line with Gaustad and Wilson. Possessing the puck deep in the Phoenix end, Wilson turned off a defender to Smith’s left and sent a centering feed across the top of the crease to Gaustad off the back post. Gaustad got a stick on the puck, but the shot went wide.
While productive creating chances at the offensive end of the rink, the second line of Gabriel Bourque – David Legwand – Alexander Radulov failed to register any points and were on the ice for all three goals against in the 2nd period finishing the night with a -3 rating. After experimenting briefly with mixed results in the 3rd period of Game 2, Trotz reset the lineup to the original lines for the rest of the night. Don’t rule out adjustments to the forward lines in Game 3.
On defense, the return of Hal Gill to the lineup has been both a blessing and a curse. With his veteran presence, Gill has been able to play bigger minutes than his replacements did in the first round, but overall the 2nd and 3rd defensive pairings have not yet seemed to gel in this series leading to Ryan Suter (30:20) and Shea Weber (28:40) playing nearly half the game on Sunday night after each played over 33 minutes in Friday’s Game 1.
During the regular season, Gill was most often paired with Roman Josi, a pairing that was successful. However, thus far in the series he has played mostly with Francis Bouillon forming a stable duo but leaving an inconsistent pairing of Josi and Kevin Klein. It will be very interesting to watch if the defensive pairings are addressed heading into Game 3. Ryan Ellis was said to be considered for Game 2, but did not dress. Whether Ellis returns to the lineup or the current personnel is shuffled, the Predators will need to find more stability behind Suter-Weber to come back in this series.
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