There has not been a single NHL game played since mid-March, but the return of hockey appears to be coming sooner rather than later. The NHL and NHLPA have agreed upon a 24-team playoff format based on conference standings. The format allows the top four seeds in each conference to play for seeding, and the 16 other teams to battle it out in a play-in round before the normal 16-team playoffs begin. There is still plenty to figure out before teams step back on the ice, including when and where this will all take place. However, it is still a huge step in the right direction for the return of hockey.
What Does That Mean for the Predators?
When/if the NHL resumes, the Predators will be the #6 seed in the Western Conference. They will play in the play-in round against the #11 seed Arizona Coyotes. The winner of that five-game series will then go on to play the #3 seed in the West. Who that is will be determined by the round-robin among the top four teams in the conference. That is looking too far ahead, however, as the play-in round will not be an easy win for anybody.
Nashville vs Arizona Matchup
If everything goes to plan and the Predators do play the Coyotes in the play-in round, it would certainly make for an interesting series. The Coyotes are a defense-first team that struggled offensively for much of this season. They are the ninth lowest-scoring team in the league, scoring just 2.71 goals per game. While the Predator’s offense certainly isn’t elite, they are much closer to mid-pack, scoring 3.07 goals per game.
The Coyotes make up for their lack of offense with stifling defense and goaltending, however, Arizona is top three in the league in goals-against per game (GA/G), giving up just 2.61. On the other hand, Nashville is ranked 20th in the league, giving up 3.10 GA/G.
Arizona has a clear advantage in the special teams category as well. The Coyotes powerplay is operating at 19.2% this season. The Predators have one of the worst powerplays in the league, converting on just 17.3% of their chances. The Coyotes penalty kill is top five in the NHL, killing off 82.7% of penalties. Nashville’s penalty kill is third worst in the NHL, killing only 76.1% of opportunities.
One area the Predators certainly have an advantage though is experience. Nashville has been a perennial playoff team and many of their players have significant playoff experience. Arizona, on the other hand, is a young team coming out of a rebuild. While they do have some players with postseason experience, the Coyotes themselves have not made the playoffs since 2012. The Predators certainly know what playoff hockey is all about, and what it takes to win. For many of the Coyotes’ players, it will be their first taste of playoff intensity at the NHL level.
Finally, the Predators have much more star power than the Coyotes do. While some of those stars were certainly underwhelming this season, Nashville is still the more talented team. The Predators boast names like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Johansen among others. Arizona’s best players are Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Taylor Hall, Nick Schmaltz, Conor Garland, and Phil Kessel. There is a clear talent gap between the two teams.
So, assuming everything works out as planned and this matchup does happen, which of these teams is likely to come out on top?
Advantage Nashville: Offense, Experience, Talent, Leadership
Advantage Arizona: Defense, Goaltending, Special Teams
At the end of the day, this will likely be a very close and hard-fought series, but the Predators should come out on top. Arizona’s shutdown defense and goaltending will certainly make it tough, but that’s really all they have going for them. Nashville is frankly the better team. Anything can happen, especially after such a long layoff, but at the end of the day, I believe the Predators’ experience, leadership group, and star players will get them past the Coyotes and into the 2020 playoffs.
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