Nashville Predators fans may have post-traumatic stress disorder thinking about the last time the team faced the then-Phoenix, now-Arizona Coyotes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Advancing out of the first round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history, about everything that could go wrong went wrong for the Predators against the Coyotes in the 2012 conference semifinals.
Forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn broke team curfew after Game 2, getting benched for the next two games as the Predators lost the series 4-1 with the team’s best offense since the 2006-07 season.
Heading into the 2020 playoffs, the Predators are favored slightly in the best-of-five play-in series, listed as a -140 favorite by sports betting source BetOnline. The site also lists the Predators with the 10th-best odds of winning the Stanley Cup at 20-to-1.
"Arizona [is] always a tough team to play against," Preds captain Roman Josi said in a Zoom call last week. "They're very structured, very good defensively and they work really hard.
"It's definitely a little different to have a training camp preparing for one team," he added. “All the teams are probably putting a lot of emphasis during training camp to prepare for that team. Normally, if you have a playoff series you might have a couple days or a week maximum to prep for opponents."
There is no doubt the Predators big-money forwards underachieved during the 2019-20 regular season. Forwards Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson performed well below their career averages.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne finally looked the part of an aging 37-year-old netminder as the younger Juuse Saros appeared to have taken a chokehold on the team’s starting goaltender job.
However, the Predators started to pick it up down the stretch with three separate three-game win streaks in their final 14 contests. With nearly four months of rest and recovery by the time the playoffs begin, Nashville could be a dangerous team if it makes it out of the play-in round.
Looking at advanced statistics, Nashville may have the slight edge offensively over Arizona. The Predators have four players — Ryan Ellis (23.2), Josi (17.9), Nick Bonino (12.5) and Craig Smith (12.4) — ranked higher in goals-above replacement than the Coyotes’ best skater Christian Dvorak (11.6) and have five players in double digits in the category compared to Arizona’s two.
The Preds ranked 13th in expected goal share (51.2), which examines overall shot quality such as shot distance, compared to Arizona’s 48.8, which ranks 21st. Nashville was also 11th in the league in even-strength shot attempt percentage (50.8) — the ratio of shot attempts generated versus allowed — compared to the Coyotes, who ranked 25th with 48.2 percent.
Nashville also got a boost in its final 10 games when Ellis returned to the lineup on Feb. 21 after missing a month and a half with a concussion suffered in the Winter Classic. The 29-year-old blueliner had two goals and 10 points, including three multi-point games.
Ellis’ return also gave a shot in the arm to the Preds top defensive pairing. With Josi and Ellis skating together, the Predators outshot opponents 877-743 with a plus-24 goal differential (Nashville 52, opponents 28).
However, Arizona has the edge regarding defense and special teams. The Coyotes allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL (183) and were third in team save percentage (.919) while Nashville ranked 20th (.900). Arizona also ranked third in even-strength save percentage (.923) while Nashville was 12th (.913).
The Coyotes also had the fifth-best power play (82.7 percent). In contrast, the Predators ranked near the bottom for that category with the 29th-ranked unit (76.1 percent).
Although Nashville is listed as a small favorite, only the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames — both listed at -120 — are favored by less in their play-in series. The Predators hold a 7-5-2 record against the Coyotes in the last five years, with seven of the 14 games being decided by a single goal. In other words, this series could be a coin flip.