The Phoenix Coyotes have had a knack for withstanding nearly everything their opponent throws at them before landing the big blow.
They know it can’t keep going like this.
Ray Whitney scored 14:04 into overtime and the Coyotes survived another late goal in regulation to open the Western Conference semifinals with a 4-3 victory over the Nashville Predators on Friday night.
”The third period they cranked it up and we didn’t respond,” said Phoenix’s Dave Tippett, who looked more like the losing coach than the winner. ”We’re fortunate to get the first one under our belt, but if we expect to have a chance to win this series, we’re going to have to be far better than we were tonight.”
It’s been like this pretty much throughout the playoffs for the cardiac Coyotes.
Phoenix was 33-1 when leading after two periods during the regular season, but has struggled to close out playoff games. The Coyotes allowed four tying third-period goals against Chicago in the first round and did it again against the Predators, giving up one to Martin Erat on a power play with 4:42 left.
Even with the Predators dominating the third period and overtime, the Coyotes wouldn’t let them score, getting big saves from goalie Mike Smith and shuttling the puck out of their zone when they got tired — which was a lot.
With a rare faceoff in Nashville’s end in overtime, Phoenix won its first second-round playoff game as an NHL franchise when Whitney flipped a backhander between Pekka Rinne’s pads after Martin Hanzal slipped a pass to him just outside the crease.
Smith made 39 saves, Rostislav Klesla had a goal and an assist, and Phoenix won despite being outshot 25-7 after the second period. Radim Vrbata and Mikkel Boedker also scored for the Coyotes, the first team in NHL history to have six of their first seven playoff games go to overtime.
Game 2 is Sunday in the desert.
”When we are up by a goal we seem to sit back and let teams come at us,” said Whitney, who also had an assist on Vrbata’s goal. ”It is frustrating. It is something we discussed and tried to fix, tried to change.”
Nashville started slow, fought back every time Phoenix scored and mostly controlled the game after the second period.
The Predators couldn’t finish it off, though, unable to beat Smith after Erat’s goal to lose a game they probably should have won.
Brandon Yip had his first goal of the playoffs and Andrei Kostitsyn also scored for Nashville, which had a 42-24 advantage in shots.
”We had lots of chances,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. ”We just didn’t have that one extra puck that went in.”
This mirror-image matchup was expected to come down to which team could play the same style best.
Both teams have superb goaltenders, smart coaches and a defense-first style – attributes they used to get by more-skilled opponents in the first round.
After winning their first division title as an NHL franchise, the Coyotes survived a rash of injuries and five overtime games to beat the Chicago Blackhawks and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 1987, when the team was still in Winnipeg.
Nashville finished six wins and seven points ahead of Phoenix, but was the Western Conference’s fourth seed because the Coyotes won the Pacific Division.
The Predators beat nemesis Detroit in a surprisingly easy five games in the first round behind Rinne, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the second straight year. That gave Nashville a week off, plenty of time to heal and rest up — and gather some rust, apparently.
Sluggish and out of synch, Nashville was on its heels early, leading to a power play midway through the first period. Vrbata capitalized, flipping a wrister from the left circle that skipped off Rinne’s mask and over his stick shoulder.
The Predators seemed to snap out of their funk after that and had better puck control, tying it late in the period thanks to an awkward bounce.
Looking for nothing more than a dump-in, Francis Bouillon sent a pass along the left boards that shot almost 90 degrees to the right. With Smith in back anticipating the pass, Yip had it easy, flipping into an empty net.
Phoenix went back up early in the second period on a good bounce of its own. This one came off the back of Predators defenseman Roman Josi, who dove to block a pass and knocked it down right in front of Klesla at the edge of the crease.
Nashville again had an answer, using a turnover in Phoenix’s zone midway through to set up a goal by Kostitsyn, who poked the puck under a sprawled out Smith after he couldn’t cover a rebound.
Boedker scored his goal late in the period, waiting and waiting on a 2-on-1 before ripping a wrister past Rinne, who had a spectacular save on Whitney about a minute earlier.
That made it 3-2 – not quite what was expected between two of the NHL’s best defensive teams.
”With these two goalies, that is probably higher than anyone would expect, but who knows, those might be the only goals we see the rest of the series,” Whitney said.
Nashville turned up the pressure in the third period, outshooting Phoenix 16-1 to leave the Coyotes tired and floundering. The flurry led to Erat’s tying goal on a rebound, sending Phoenix to yet another overtime game in the playoffs.
The Predators kept up the pressure in overtime, getting numerous good chances while allowing the Coyotes a few meager counterattacks.
The Coyotes have seemingly needed only one chance all playoffs and Smith made sure they got it, making numerous difficult saves, including one on Bouillon that sent his stick flying. Whitney cashed in on one of Phoenix’s few good opportunities after the second period, taking a pass from Hanzal off a faceoff and slipping it past Rinne in overtime to help Phoenix steal Game 1.
”When we took over the game and started playing in their end, we did a lot of good things,” Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. ”Obviously, that ended up biting us in the end – they got one chance and put it in, in overtime.”
Notes: Nashville D Hal Gill returned after missing the Detroit series with a lower-body injury. … Phoenix killed off 18 straight penalties before Erat’s goal. … The Predators, the NHL’s best power-play team during the regular season, were 2 for 26 in the playoffs before Erat scored with the man advantage.