In the team’s first playoff game in 2,994 days, the Arizona Coyotes raced out to a 3-0 lead on the Nashville Predators on Sunday afternoon in Edmonton and ultimately held on for a 4-3 victory. With the win, Arizona took a 1-0 series lead in the best-of-five Stanley Cup playoffs qualifying round.
Coyotes Set the Tone Early
After a lethargic effort in Thursday’s 4-1 exhibition-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Coyotes wasted no time in jumping all over the Predators in Sunday’s qualifying-round opener, as they scored the game’s first three goals, all in the opening period.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored a fluky one to open the scoring. His point slapshot deflected off of both Kyle Turris and Matt Duchene, then flew over the head of goalie Juuse Saros and into the net at 7:59 to give Arizona the 1-0 lead.
Just under three minutes later, the ‘Yotes were at it again – Taylor Hall centered the puck to Phil Kessel from behind the net, but Saros came up with a great save. However, in doing so, he gave up a juicy rebound, and Christian Dvorak was there to put it home for the Coyotes’ second goal of the game.
Later, with Duchene in the box for holding, Clayton Keller got on the scoreboard, blasting a one-timer past Saros after being left uncovered by the Nashville defense.
The Predators got a fluky goal of their own very late in the first period, as a Filip Forsberg shot careened off of the glove of Darcy Kuemper then the leg of Hjalmarsson before settling in the net with 2.5 seconds remaining. The Coyotes still owned a two-goal lead after 20 minutes, though, and their first-period performance went a long way in deciding this one.
The Coyotes’ penalty-kill unit didn’t have the greatest day, as they surrendered two goals on five Nashville power-play chances, but forward Michael Grabner made the pivotal play of the game while playing shorthanded.
Late in the second period, as we’ve seen numerous times throughout Grabner’s two-season tenure in Arizona, the veteran used his superior hockey sense, anticipation, and speed to create a shorthanded breakaway opportunity. After Nashville had gained the zone, Grabner hung around in a passing lane, and, sure enough, intercepted a Forsberg pass intended for Ryan Johansen.
Grabner, who has posted 7 shorthanded goals in 87 games as a Coyote (second in the NHL only to Sebastian Aho’s 8 SHGs in 150 games), made no mistake with his chance on Sunday, going “forehand, backhand, shelfy,” as described by Coyotes’ color commentator Tyson Nash, to beat Saros and give Arizona the 4-1 lead.
Grabner had a tremendously difficult 2019-20 season in Arizona – he was a frequent healthy scratch and struggled to get on the scoresheet when he was on the ice, posting just 8 goals and 3 assists in 46 games. Indeed, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the lineup for this series, but an injury to Nick Schmaltz in Thursday’s exhibition loss to the Golden Knights opened up a spot, and Grabner did not waste his chance to make a difference.
Kuemper Steals the Show
Before Darcy Kuemper’s injury in a game against the Minnesota Wild on Dec. 19, 2019, the Coyotes were riding high. They had just acquired superstar Taylor Hall days earlier, were on pace for their first 100-point season in a decade, and had a the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy, Kuemper, manning the pipes.
Then, the franchise netminder went down, and everything changed. The ‘Yotes posted an 11-13-8 record without him, and although he returned to the lineup and made four starts before the season was canceled, it may have been too little, too late for a team that had fallen to 11th place in the Western Conference.
When the NHL announced in July that the Coyotes would be involved in a 24-team playoff field, the prospect of a healthy Arizona roster taking the ice in the postseason intrigued many in the hockey world. Would Phil Kessel be able to rebound after an injury-plagued regular season? Would Oliver Ekman-Larsson turn things around after a below-average campaign? And, would Kuemper be able to return to the form he showed in December, when he posted a league-leading save percentage of .935 through 24 starts?
So far, the answers to these questions appear to be ‘Yes’. On Sunday, Kessel picked up two assists and fired four shots on goal, Ekman-Larsson scored and played 24:21, and, most importantly, Kuemper looked the part of a goaltender that could indeed steal a series. The Saskatchewan-born netminder stopped 40 of the 43 shots he faced in Game 1, including 22 of 23 through the first two periods and 18 of 20 in a frantic third-period where the Coyotes were desperately trying to hang on.
The 40 saves and 43 shots faced were both season-highs for Kuemper, and his performance under such extreme circumstances has to be a promising sign for a team which arguably will need above-average goaltending to have a chance to advance in these playoffs. If Kuemper can continue to stand on his head, as he did during the regular season, the Coyotes will have a chance to beat any postseason opponent they may face.
With Game 1 in the books, these two teams will face off again in Game 2 on Tuesday in Edmonton. Puck drop will take place at 11:30 A.M. in Arizona – the game will be televised nationally in the United States on the NHL Network, in Canada on Sportsnet, and locally in Arizona on Fox Sports Arizona Plus.
A lifelong Phoenix resident, Louis has been following hockey since 2010, has covered the Arizona Coyotes since 2015, and has been playing hockey since 2020. So far, Louis has visited eight NHL cities, and one of his personal goals is to eventually make it to all 31 NHL arenas. For any questions or concerns, contact the writer via Twitter @LouisPannone.