Phase 3 of the NHL’s plan went underway on July 13. The 24 teams that qualified for the postseason tournament have been preparing for the long road ahead in hopes to have their name etched into Stanley Cup history. The format looks a little different this postseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the top four teams in each conference will play a round-robin style tournament to decide the rankings for the round of 16. The other eight teams in each conference will face off one another in best of three series to decide who plays the top four teams from the round-robin. The qualifier for the Arizona Coyotes vs Nashville Predators series hasn’t been getting a lot of traction. Whether it’s due to both of these teams not having the most exciting seasons or the lack of star talent, it’s often overlooked.
There’s one thing that shouldn’t be passed on in this Arizona Coyotes vs Nashville Predators series, however. The potential goalie matchups for this series has some serious intrigue. Pekka Rinne seems to be on his way down from greatness, with Juuse Saros knocking on his starting-role’s door. Darcy Kuemper was on a Vezina caliber run before getting injured, but Antti Raanta stepped in and seamlessly filled the starting role in Arizona.
This season is the first season the Coyotes have had a real sniff at a playoff appearance since their 2012 cup run, where they lost in the conference finals to the Los Angeles Kings. Since then, they have been consistently in the bottom half of the league’s standings.
However, there have been some bright sparks recently, their goalies. Antti Raanta was acquired in a trade from the New York Rangers to be the starting goaltender for the team. During the 2017-18 season, his first for the team, Raanta put up pretty good starting numbers. He hosted a .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against-average. Recurring lower body injuries kept him from starting more games, and forced the Coyotes front office to trade for Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper didn’t perform all that well in the 10 games he appeared in that season, but that wasn’t indicative of what was to come.
In Kuemper’s first full season with the team, he started in 55 games and put up a career-best season. He posted a .925 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against-average, solidifying his capabilities as a starting goalie in the absence of Antti Raanta. This season, the two split starts and were were both out at some point with injuries. This didn’t stop them from being one of the most electric duo’s in the league. They put up a combined .925 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against-average. They were also in the top-five for the Jennings Trophy race, proving their elite puck stopping capabilities. Both goalies have the ability to start for the team, so head coach Rick Tocchet will have a tough choice to make.
If this series were to take place two seasons ago, Pekka Rinne would get the starting job for the Predators, no question. But this isn’t two seasons ago, and Rinne isn’t the Vezina calibre goalie he was then, either. This season he had career lows in almost every category, and is being phased out by a younger and more talented Juuse Saros. This season, Rinne hit the sub-.900 save percentage mark for the first time in his career. He also hit the 3.00 goals-against-average mark for the first time since becoming a full-time NHL goalie. This was a season to forget for the veteran netminder.
For his counterpart, however, Juuse Saros took the opportunity to fill in for Rinne in stride. He put up a .914 save percentage and a 2.70 goals-against-average. Those certainly aren’t elite numbers, but they are starter potential, for sure.
The qualifying series against Arizona will begin the true passing of the torch between Saros and Rinne, and the end of a dominant era for the Vezina award winner. This season won’t be the last for Rinne in Nashville, but his time as the starter might be over. Needless to say, Saros seems more than ready to step into the big shoes that Rinne wore. His appearances in each season have increased as each year passes. This season he saw his most starts and games played, as well as performing pretty well too. The Predators have their goalie of the future in Saros, but goalies can only excel when the team around them gives them the time they need to adjust.
The Importance of Defence for Both Teams
The defence that plays in front of both teams’ goalies will make or break the series. For the Predators, their veteran blue line experience will help them immensely. Guys like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm were with the team during their Stanley Cup Final appearance. They will likely be bringing Yannick Weber, who was also with the team. Having five players on the ice with that much chemistry and postseason experience will help them make up for their lackluster offence.
Roman Josi will, without a doubt, be forced into even more of an offensive role than he already took this season. The key to getting past goalies like Kuemper and Raanta will be fast zone entries and an absurd net-front presence. With Josi’s hard shot and zone entry ability, his services will be key. Losing a player like P.K. Subban on their power play is a blow to their blue line pressure.
However, Ryan Ellis has proven his ability on the powerplay. He notched nine points when up a man, his third best power play point total over his career. With the stakes as high as they are, this should motivate his production on the power play.
The Coyotes blue line has a good mix of young and old talent. With an average age of 28, the team has a decent mix of vets and young-guns. Most notably is 32-year-old Niklas Hjalmarsson, who won three cups with the Chicago Blackhawks over the course of his career. He is, arguably, going to be their biggest factor on the blue line, having the most postseason experience.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson will also be playing a big role on their blue line. The captain for the Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson is going to have to step up big time in this series. His first taste of postseason play was during the team’s last playoff appearance in 2012. The then 20-year-old only put up four points in 16 contests. He’ll have to step his game up this time around if he wants to see his team make a deep run.
Unlike the Predators, who have more than capable offensive-defencemen, the Coyotes have more of a stay-at-home list of players. Hjalmarsson has been an elite shutdown guy since his time in Chicago, and will need to continue to do that against Nashville. Even with his help, the defence’s leader in takeaways, Jakob Chychrun, only had 27 of them. The whole defence-core will need to step up their defensive game if they want to have a shot of winning the series.
A Long Series Ahead
The lack of buzz around this Arizona Coyotes vs Nashville Predators series definitely plays into the high-stakes for the goalie matchup. Regardless of whoever gets put in between the pipes, this series won’t be a three-game sweep for either team. The goalie talent on both sides will make it hard for one team to completely blow out the other. If guys like Clayton Keller or Ryan Johansen don’t excite you, then the guys playing between the pipes just might.