Tomorrow night, the Phoenix Coyotes have a chance to make their most memorable season yet the greatest in franchise history. I believed they had the stuff to win this series, as did at least one colleague, but more pundits than not thought the Preds could lock this up. The series is far from over for Phoenix, but consider that their ascension to the conference final, following 60 or more minutes of quality hockey, will be a mere formality.
Why? The ‘Yotes are up 2-0 in the series right now. And nothing will help the marathon playoff drive more than a nice 3-0 cushion to make the endgame of this series visible.
As of right now, the Preds can take comfort knowing there are 37 teams in NHL history who have been in the same boat as them and gone on to take the series. They won’t want to hear about the 254 that didn’t. But even more forbidden is the thought of going down 3-0, which has been overcome so infrequently that the three teams who have done it are household names, (1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers), and hoping to join this company is just plain foolhardy.
History is one thing, but what you don’t want to do here is underestimate your opponent. Nashville is the only anointed contender that remains in the West. St. Louis was seen as promising and blue-chip but still young and unproven, and Los Angeles had trouble scoring goals all year and barely squeaked in at eighth-place. Nashville has it all – reliable and creative offensive flair led by homegrown players like Patric Hornqvist and Martin Erat, rock solid defence in Weber and Suter, and all-world goalie Pekka Rinne. This is supposed to be the year they make a run. They added all the extra pieces – shutdown centre (Paul Gaustad), big veteran defenceman (Hall Gill), well-behaved and badly-behaved Russians who score (Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn who, incidentally, both missed curfew and have to sit out Game 3 – so maybe that wasn’t such a good move). The point is, if there was a time for the Predators to prove their legitimacy and mettle, it would be tomorrow night. With their season on the line and the question of whether they are an elite team or just a pretty good one stuck at the 2nd round glass ceiling to be answered, they will be expected to come out in full barnstorming mode.
So what does Phoenix have to do to go into the Bridgestone Centre tomorrow and earn their invitation to show up at the Western Conference Finals door?
They will need to stun Nashville. Get on them early and often, and don’t take their foot off the gas. It’s not going to be easy. But it says here there are three easy pieces to getting it done.
Pucks on the net
There is no such thing as a bad shot. Up until game 2 of this series Phoenix had been out-shot in every single game of these playoffs. Granted it never cost them but if Nashville comes out surging tomorrow, it’s not going to be the kind of night to sit on 0-0 or 1-0 and wait for mistakes to capitalise on. Quality scoring chances and a busy night for Rinne are key to victory, and the easiest way to generate quality scoring chances is to get good, old-fashioned simple pucks on the net
Don’t think Smith’s Going to Bail You Out
Mike Smith has been excellent and further silences his doubters with each passing victory. But no goalie can stop everything, and confidence is easily shaken by a bad goal or two. Tim Thomas’s “zone” was never disturbed during the Boston Bruins cup run because of his sportsmanship, but also because of the excellent play by his team. No goalie can take you all the way by himself (see Jaroslav Halak, Montreal Canadiens 2010) and this is the time for Phoenix to step up big in front of Smith like they did last time.
Most Importantly, Have Fun
Low expectations and light springs in their steps have contributed to Phoenix’s success so far. Here is the where the fine line between nerves (season on the line) and complacency (Up two games to none) must be expertly straddled. You don’t want to overshoot this and make mistakes because, while there is no pressure, if Nashville wins they’re right back in this series. And given the amount of solid producers on this team, you probably just want to leave that cat in the bag.
Phoenix will want to stick with what they’ve been doing and keep it simple in order to keep this series short. One area they stand out is the balanced scoring of their team. Even though 12 skaters on both teams have found the back of the net in this post-season, the boys in burgundy seem less than any other team still in it to have players “Missing in action” or multiple lines mired in listlessness unproductiveness. This will be the night for some new unsung worker bee to step up with a contribution (Hello Boyd Gordon and Lauri Korpikorski) – of course, output from Vermette, Whitney, Doan or anybody else will be equally celebrated by this selfless and hard-competing squad.
Especially because the future energy gained from a win tomorrow will really come in handy against, say, the Los Angeles Kings, who have stymied their opponents night in and night out throughout the playoffs, or a re-energized Blues that will have just engineered an even more mammoth comeback against LA than Nashville has to against Phoenix because they coughed up the first two at home. Either way, these are chickens that have not yet hatched. But the Phoenix Coyotes can earn the right to start counting them with a win tomorrow.