Coyotes Push Preds to the Brink of Elimination

After posting a 4-3 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs qualifying round on Sunday, the Arizona Coyotes split Games 2 and 3 with the Preds on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and are now just a single win away from advancing to the 16-team playoff field, and their first “official” playoff appearance since the 2011-12 season.

Kuemper Carries Coyotes (Again)

As was the case in Game 1, goaltender Darcy Kuemper was the story for the Coyotes in Game 3. He had a rough afternoon on Tuesday in Game 2, allowing 4 goals on 28 shots, but he was utterly dominant on Wednesday. He weathered a 19-shot onslaught in the opening period without surrendering a goal, and ultimately was beaten only once on the day (by Viktor Arvidsson in the second period) despite facing 40 Nashville shots, many of the high-danger variety.

Kuemper’s outstanding play thus far has been reminiscent of Mike Smith’s performance in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. In the Coyotes’ first-round upset of the Chicago Blackhawks that year, Smith posted a .950 save percentage while facing 40.2 shots per game.

In these playoffs, Kuemper owns a .928 save percentage, which is second only to Montreal’s Carey Price among goaltenders who have appeared in all of their team’s postseason games. Additionally, Kuemper is tied with Price in shots faced, with 111 (37 per game), despite playing 13 fewer minutes.

Darcy Kuemper Arizona Coyotes
Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It looks like the Saskatonian is already in midseason form, which is a very good sign for Arizona. As we said in our series preview and in our Game 1 recap, the Coyotes will go as far as Kuemper takes them, and, three games into the playoffs, it looks like their goaltender is well on his way toward stealing the qualifying-round series.

Garland’s Clutch Goal

Former Moncton Wildcats standout Conor Garland was one of the more intriguing Coyotes players heading into the 2019-20 season. The 2015 fifth-round pick made his NHL debut in 2018-19 after spending his first two-and-a-half professional seasons in the AHL, and he immediately carved out a place in the lineup, scoring 13 goals in just 47 games – a 22-goal pace over an 82-game season.

Coming into this season, many were curious to see if Garland, who twice led the entire Canadian Hockey League in scoring during his major-junior career, would be able to continue finding the back of the net at the NHL level.

Conor Garland Arizona Coyotes
Conor Garland, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Garland immediately resolved any lingering doubts regarding his play, picking up six goals and two assists in the season’s opening month. There was no “sophomore slump” for the Scituate, Massachusetts native, as he was a threat to score all season long and finished with a team-high 22 goals along with 17 assists for a total of 39 points in 68 games. Had the final 12 regular-season contests not been canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Garland would likely have reached the 25-goal mark, which hasn’t been done by a Coyote since the captain Shane Doan tickled the twine 28 times in 2015-16.

After the long layoff, Garland posted two quiet games to start the playoffs. He finally got on the scoresheet with a goal in Game 3, though, and boy was it a big one:

Garland’s first career NHL playoff goal – the eventual game-winner – came at 7:08 of the third period and broke a 1-1 tie. It was indeed a “dirty toe-drag,” as analyst Tyson Nash said on the Fox Sports Arizona broadcast, and gave the Coyotes a huge momentum boost as they finished strong with additional goals from Taylor Hall and Carl Soderberg and skated away with a 4-1 victory, and a 2-1 series lead.

The Coyotes are already getting big-time contributions from their top-six forwards in this series – Taylor Hall, Phil Kessel, Christian Dvorak, Clayton Keller, and Derek Stepan have all recorded at least three points thus far. If Garland can get hot, too, the Predators are in deep trouble.

What’s Next?

With three games in the rearview mirror, the Coyotes and Preds will meet again on Friday in an elimination game – Nashville must win to extend the series to a decisive Game 5, which would be played on Sunday. Puck drop is scheduled for 11:30 A.M. in Arizona – the game will be televised nationally in the United States on the NHL Network/NBC Sports Network, in Canada on Sportsnet, and locally in the Valley of the Sun on Fox Sports Arizona.