Some were shocked when the Arizona Coyotes took down the Nashville Predators in four games. An 11-seed who was in free fall before the season was suspended, the Yotes were expected to be bounced and enter the second phase of the draft lottery. But when Brad Richardson scored the game-winning goal in overtime of game four, Arizona found themselves in the first round of the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2012. Their next round should be a lot tougher, however, as they take on the Colorado Avalanche.
How They Matched Up This Season
During the season, the Coyotes and Avalanche played just two of their three scheduled games. These games were very early in the year when Arizona was playing their best hockey. The two teams split the two games with each team winning at home. Colorado took the first game 3-2 in overtime while Arizona took the second, 3-0.
The big difference in those two games was star goaltender Darcy Kuemper. He did not start the first game in Colorado, but he did start the game in Arizona where he had a 33-save shutout. Both games were low scoring and it’s something you could see again in this series. Colorado has one of the best defenses in the NHL while Arizona has a goalie who can carry them through.
Can Kuemper Carry Again?
The biggest key for the Yotes against Colorado will once again be the play of Kuemper. He had 152 saves on 163 shots in four games as the Predators peppered him game after game. However, the Coyotes were consistently playing a trap that forced Nashville to shoot a lot from outside. This benefits a goalie like Kuemper whose best trait is his positioning.
Playing a trap like that has its risks. The Predators aren’t known as a great offensive team and they still averaged over 40 shots per game against Arizona. Colorado is the opposite. They finished fourth in the league in Goals Per Game (3.37) and feature one of the best scorers in the NHL in Nathan MacKinnon. If they have 40 shots per game like Nashville, they could be putting up a lot more goals than Nashville did.
Coyotes Need a Key Scorer
Another big key for the Coyotes is having one of their top scorers step up. While the team did score four goals in all three wins against the Predators, the team lacked having one key scorer. No player had more than two points in any one game and no one had more than two goals in the series. Against a team as good defensively as Colorado, you need to have that one or two guys that you can trust to score the big goal or make the big play.
One thing that could help that will be the return of Nick Schmaltz. Schmaltz was the team’s leading scorer for the season and missed the entire series against Nashville. While he’s not necessarily the best goal scorer on the team, his return could spark a guy like Conor Garland who led the team in goals this year, but only had one point in the Predators series. Schmaltz is doubtful for game one on Wednesday, but could come back as soon as game two on Friday.
Can Coyotes Pull Off the Upset?
The Avalanche are one of the biggest favorites in the West going into these playoffs. Very few teams play both offense and defense as well as they do. They were fourth in the league in goals per game and sixth in goals against per game. The one thing the Coyotes do better than Colorado is keeping pucks out of the net. They finished the year tied for third in goals against per game and most of that was without Kuemper.
As is always the case in the playoffs, a hot goalie can steal a series. Before the Coyotes/Predators series, I said the same thing but pointed out you need to be able to score consistently too and I didn’t expect Arizona to do that. I ended up being wrong as they managed to score 14 goals in four games.
However, the Avalanche are much better defensively than Nashville. This is a battle of two teams who can both win close, defensive games. We saw the Coyotes do it in games one and four against Nashville and the Avalanche do it in their round robin game against the St. Louis Blues.
So, in the end, can the Coyotes pull off the upset? I think it’s certainly possible. With a goalie like Kuemper, anything can happen. They will need to limit the shots he faces more than they did against Nashville, and if they do that plus see some increased scoring, we could see Arizona look like the team we saw pre-January and make a run in the playoffs.
Follow me on Twitter at @paullymac7 for more of my content!
Come discuss this and much more at the Overtime Heroics forums!