Unbeaten trip the goal for Coyotes in Nashville

Ah, memories.

It seems only yesterday that Predators forwards Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn were spotted at a Scottsdale bar at 1 a.m., the morning of Game 2 of their second-round playoff series against the Coyotes, thereby breaking curfew and perhaps creating so much of a distraction that the favored Predators were never able to recover in a five-game series loss.

But those days are gone, just like Radulov, who wasn’t offered a contract extension despite a highly anticipated arrival late last season. But don’t worry about Radulov. He signed a four-year deal with CSKA of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for $9.2 million per year. And don’t worry about defenseman Ryan Suter, who didn’t get what he wanted from Nashville, either, but certainly landed on his feet, signing a $98 million, 13-year deal with Minnesota.

If anybody deserves pity, it’s the Predators, who thought they had built a Stanley Cup contender last season only to bow out in the second round and then lose two talented pieces.

The fallout is evident in the Predators’ game, which has only been offensive in the bad sense of the word. Nashville is averaging 1.77 goals per game this season, the worst mark in the 30-team NHL. No player has more than three goals, and there are only two players (Colin Wilson, Martin Erat) who have reached that lofty total.

The Predators recently set a franchise record by going more than 174 minutes without scoring; Wilson ended the streak Tuesday in a 1-0 overtime victory over San Jose.

The Predators’ saving grace this season has been their water-tight defense, which is, remarkably, also allowing 1.77 goals per game, the best mark in the NHL. Credit goalie Pekka Rinne for much of that, but the Predators’ system also limits opponents’ quality scoring chances, a strength that will have to hold all season, unless GM David Poile can add some offense to widen the razor-thin margin for error the offense is providing.

“The top half of our lineup doesn’t have any more goals than the bottom half of our lineup,” coach Barry Trotz told the Tennessean. “We have to add to our game.”

Maybe the Predators can take a page from Thursday’s opponent, the Coyotes, who never seem to have much elite skill at the forward position yet manage to generate enough offense.

Phoenix can turn a successful road trip into an undefeated one with a win in Nashville. The Coyotes opened this two-game set with wins in San Jose and Colorado, the latter despite being outplayed for much of the game.

Through the first two games of this trip, goalie Mike Smith has allowed two goals in 129 minutes of play (yes, that’s less than a 1.00 goals-against average) while stopping 74 of 76 shots and posting one shutout. That little stretch has Smith back on the first page of the NHL’s goaltending leaders, although there is work to do to get back to where he left off last season. Smith’s 2.76 GAA ranks 26th in the NHL; his .901 save percentage is 28th.

THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS

21: That’s how many shots on goal per game the Predators are averaging, the worst mark in the league, just like their goals per game. Nashville has been outshot in 11 of its 13 games this season and has failed to top the 20-shot mark five times already. Higher shot totals don’t guarantee goals, but the Preds might want to try that approach. The current one isn’t working.

4-1-1: That’s Dave Tippett’s regular-season record in three seasons as the Coyotes coach in games played in Nashville. This comes despite the fact that Phoenix has only outscored Nashville 15-13 in those six games.

Model or myth? The Predators have been viewed by many as the model of how to build a franchise on a tight budget, and there is reason to believe the club’s tight-checking system and strong goaltending are keys to playoff success. But the fact remains that Nashville is one of just two Western Conference teams (Columbus is the other) never to have advanced as far as the conference finals. The Predators have never won more than one playoff series in a season and have won just two in their history. So is this the model or is this a myth?

THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW

A homecoming of sorts: Coyotes forward Steve Sullivan played 317 games for the Predators and ranks in the top six on Nashville’s all-time goals and points lists. It was in Nashville that Sullivan thought his career might be over following two back surgeries and nearly two years away from the game. Sullivan has been well-liked everywhere he’s played, so the bet here is he’ll get a warm reception from the Bridgestone-Arena crowd.

Praying on the Predators: Looking for Coyotes picks to click? In 20 career regular-season games against the Predators, defenseman Keith Yandle has four goals and 13 assists. In 26 games, Sullivan has four goals and 16 assists.

Milestone in sight: With a three-point night in Denver, Coyotes captain Shane Doan accomplished a couple things. First, he broke a seven-game pointless streak that had observers recalling previous seasons from the notoriously slow-starting Doan. Second, he moved within five points of 800 for his career and within 22 points of Thomas Steen (817) for second place in franchise history behind Dale Hawerchuk at 929 points. With a little luck, Doan could reach the 800-point barrier during the team’s two-game homestand, but a better bet might be on the club’s three-game trip to western Canada later this month. That wouldn’t be all bad considering two of those games (Calgary, Edmonton) are in Doan’s home province of Alberta.  

INJURY REPORT

For the Coyotes, F Matthew Lombardi (shoulder) and D David Schlemko (shoulder) are out indefinitely. For the Predators, F Patric Hornqvist (knee) has resumed skating but is still out.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter