After a chaotic four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL season will finally resume with the playoffs this weekend. In Edmonton, we will see the Western Conference playoffs begin with two games on Saturday and two games on Sunday. The first game on Sunday will be Game 1 between the Nashville Predators and Arizona Coyotes. Let’s breakdown the upcoming series and take a look at how the two teams match-up.
A Tale of Two Seasons
The Coyotes were off to a hot start this season. They were in first place in the Pacific Division as late as January 17th. However, they had a month stretch where they lost 10 out of 13 games and never truly recovered. With a 33-29-8 record, 74 points, and a points percentage of .529, they come into the playoffs as the 11-seed in the West. They also had a crazy week leading up to the playoffs as their General Manager and President of Hockey Operations, John Chayka, resigned from the team on July 26th.
The Predators’ season was quite the opposite of the Coyotes. On January 6th, they fired head coach Peter Laviolette after a 19-15-7 start that had them sixth in the Central Division. They hired John Hynes who led the team to a 16-11-1 record. This was enough to put them in a playoff spot when the season was cut short due to COVID-19. They earned the six-seed with a 35-26-8 record, 78 points, and a points percentage of .565.
A Low Scoring Series?
This series is a battle of two teams in the bottom half of the league in scoring. The Predators were led offensively by defenseman Roman Josi who was second among NHL defensemen with 65 points. Their next leading scorer is Filip Forsberg who had just 48 points as the top forward.
Arizona’s leading scorer is someone who played just half the year with the team in Taylor Hall. Hall was acquired via trade in December from the Devils. He had 27 points in 35 games with the Coyotes to go with his 25 points in New Jersey. Each team also had just one 20 goal scorer in Forsberg (21) for Nashville and Conor Garland (22) for Arizona.
Arizona is also led by one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL. Darcy Kuemper was one of the best netminders in the league before getting hurt and missing three months of action. He had a 2.19 goals-against average (GAA) and a .929 save percentage (S%) before a lower-body injury sidelined him. His backup, Antti Raanta, is no slouch either. His 2.63 GAA and .921 S% are both better than either of the Predators’ goalies. With both teams also having solid blue lines to boot, look for this series to be a defensive struggle.
Who Will Start in Net for Nashville?
It seems pretty clear that Kuemper will start in net for the Coyotes. The bigger question is: who will start for the Predators? Pekka Rinne has been the starting goalie in every year of the team’s five-year playoff streak. That could be coming to an end as Juuse Saros was the better guy in net for the entirety of this season.
After Hynes took over in January, Saros started 17 of the 28 remaining games. With that in mind, it seems like the obvious answer to who will start the series is Saros. However, it’s not easy to move on from your veteran netminder and while it should be Saros in net, don’t be surprised if Rinne is between the pipes for Nashville. Considering how often the team with the hotter goaltender wins the series, it could be a decision that decides who moves on to the next round.
Considering it’s been four months since we’ve seen either team play, it’s hard to know what the teams will look like. Momentum is usually key heading into playoffs and Nashville’s momentum was much stronger when the season ended. They had rebounded post-coaching change while Arizona was still struggling.
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest keys in a series is who has the hot goaltender. Arizona got Kuemper back right before the season ended, and if I were to pick who the best goaltender in the series will be, it’s him. However, to win with a hot goaltender, you also need to be able to score and Arizona just doesn’t do that enough.
Both teams are expected to start netminders with very limited playoff experience. Kuemper made a few starts in 2013-14 while with the Minnesota Wild and Saros hasn’t started a single playoff game. Unless Nashville goes with Rinne, you’ll see two guys trying to make a name for themselves in the spotlight. So, my final prediction comes down to this: if Saros is the starter, I think he’ll play well enough to shut a struggling Coyotes offense down. If Rinne starts, Kuemper has the potential to carry his team to a series win.
Prediction: Nasvhille wins 3-1
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