Coyotes and Predators expecting tight series
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — One team has a goalie who plays the crease like a spider in a web, multiple players who can score and a hard-hitting, defense-first mentality.
The other team ... well, it's pretty much the same thing.
After bogging down two of the NHL's most skilled teams in the opening round, the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes face off in what will be a two-of-a-kind Western Conference semifinal.
Game 1 is Friday night in the desert and the only way to tell the teams apart will be by their jersey colors.
"We really are mirror images of each other," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "We play a similar style, very good defense and work ethic, and you don't get a free night with Nashville. They'll be tough games. This will be an interesting series."
The Coyotes had a raucous ride into the second round of the playoffs, re-energizing a desert fan base that had become hockey complacent over the past few seasons.
Relying on a tight-checking style, an everybody-chips-in mentality and superb goaltending from Mike Smith, Phoenix won its first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise.
The Coyotes capped it by surviving a brutal series against Chicago, mucking it up against the fleet Blackhawks to win in six games, their first trip out of the opening round since 1987.
Nashville finished ahead of Phoenix in the regular season — six more wins, seven more points — but was fourth in the West because the Coyotes won the Pacific Division.
Like the Coyotes, the Predators have a superb goalie in Pekka Rinne, prefer to keep games close and get scoring production from all through the roster.
Nashville opened the playoffs by dispatching the fast-skating Detroit Red Wings in five games, an outcome that wasn't surprising so much because the Predators won, but because of how quickly and seemingly easily they did it.
"They're a team similar to us and we know it's going to be tough," Nashville center Mike Fisher said.
The toughest part might be finding ways to score against Smith and Rinne.
Phoenix's goalie was no average Smith, putting together a top-notch season after the Coyotes were criticized for tabbing him as their replacement for Ilya Brzygalov.
An athletic 6-foot-4, Smith set career-highs in pretty much every category there is, finishing third in the NHL with a save percentage of .930, tied for third with eight shutouts and fourth in wins with 38.
Smitty was even better in the playoffs, at times carrying the Coyotes by himself while they tried to keep up with the swarming Blackhawks.
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