Monday, April 5, 2010

LAUNCH! And a look at the Preds' potential first round opponents: Phoenix Coyotes


First off...welcome to the inaugural post of our brand new site!  I won't bore you with too many details about who I am or what I do--most of that is covered in my "about me" section.  I'm a lifelong hockey fan\player and a day one Preds diehard!  I've been with the team through the highs and lows:  from the collection of no-names and castoffs that made up for what they lacked in skill with heart and entertainment, to the elation that came when we clinched our first playoff berth (I have never been a bigger Canucks fan than the night they knocked off Edmonton back in 2004, guaranteeing our spot as the eighth seed that year).  I was there when ESPN called our roster "scary," just after the acquisition of Peter Forsberg, and I was there when the disappointment of a first round exit to the Sharks gave way to trials of the Jim Balsillie fiasco.  I campaigned for the team that summer, urging anyone that would listen to purchase tickets, even\especially if they had never seen a hockey game.  I emphasized the value of the team to the city of Nashville, and its reputation as a legitimate sports market.  I kept up my season tickets, even though I probably shouldn't have, from a financial standpoint.  I've seen the names on the back of our sweater change from Brunette, to Krivokrasov, to Kjellberg, to Delmore, to Kariya, and on up to Weber.  I've seen those sweaters themselves change from the busy, expansion-era silks, to the much-maligned mustard-only-a-Predhead-could-love, to the streamlined "Reebok" era, to the Taylor Swift endorsed new thirds.  Much has changed both on and off the ice for the Predators in these 12 years.  Much has changed in my own life, as well.  The one constant, however, the one thing that could be counted on was that the Preds would do more with less than any other team in the league.  It's that lunch-pail, yeoman effort that makes this team so easy to love, so much an addiction for all of us.  It's why "Fang Fever" is so contagious.

But enough of my melodramatic musings...I'm reasonably certain that you're not here for that :).

In this first blog, I'm going to take a look at the four teams that the Preds could realistically see in the first round of the playoffs, and breakdown the particulars of facing each.

09-10 Prospective Playoff Opponents: Phoenix Coyotes

This first blog will also be the first in a four-part series detailing the Predators and how they match up against prospective playoff opponents.  I hope to roll this out over the next three days, with an entry for the top four teams each day.

As it stands today, the Preds are 2 points up on the hated Detroit Red Wings for the 5th seed.  The Red Wings do have a game in hand, but fortunately squandered the chance to draw even with us by losing their second game in hand to the Flyers.  Maybe Timonen, Hartnell, and Parent have that Red Wing hatred ingrained in them from their days here?  Whatever the case may be, they did us a big favor.  If the seedings remain as they are today, we would face the surprising Phoenix Coyotes in the 4/5 matchup, so that's where we'll start.

The Phoenix Coyotes are a team that most believe shouldn't be where they are.  That statement rings on many levels, in the minds of many hockey fans.  Prior to this season, they were introduced someone who needed no introduction to Predators fans: Jim Balsillie.  While Balsillie may have put on the pretenses of "making it work" in Nashville, no matter how disingenuous those claims were later revealed to be, he made no such airs when it came to his intentions with the Coyotes.  Beginning in the early summer, the RIM Executive began turning the wheels on a plan that would see the Coyotes relocated to the "Golden Horseshoe" area of southern Ontario.  The protracted legal proceedings continue to this day, though Balsillie and his henchman lawyer Richard Rodier have thankfully faded into the background.  The collateral damage of this highly-publicized battle was high, and ticket sales and corporate sponsorship understandably dipped.  With the league owning the team, many were unsure what sort of operating budget GM Don Maloney would be working with, and how he would sell his franchise as an attractive destination for free agents. 

Fast forward 10 months, and the Coyotes are only a few points shy of the first seed in the Western Conference.  With a rowdy, defiant, "we'll show you all" banner, the Coyotes have banded together to prove the naysayers wrong.  Under the veteran tutelage of former Stars coach Dave Tippett, they've found ways to win with the Vezina-worthy goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov(whom they stole off waivers from the Ducks, just a few seasons ago), an emerging defense-core led by a rejuvenated Ed Jovonovski and dynamic Keith Yandle.  Shane Doan, who surpassed the 1000-game mark with the Jets\Coyotes franchise this year, has provided the same lead-by-example grit as captain that he always has--but the extra incentive to prove everyone wrong may have been just the ingredient the Coyotes needed to get over the hump.


What the Coyotes have in youthful exuberance and us-vs-the-world attitude, they lack in that intangible component that the Preds themselves lacked in the past: playoff experience.  It's been 8 seasons since the Coyotes played a post-season game.  Teppo Numminen and and Sean Burke aren't walking through that door.  In fact, only Shane Doan remains from that last playoff team.  The core of the Coyotes is largely unproven in the postseason, and as Preds fans well know--there's no substitute for getting there and doing it.

From a matchup standpoint, the Coyotes are a team built similarly to the Preds.  They play a strong, fast, counter-attack based game that emphasizes creating turnovers in the neutral zone and relying on a mobile defense and strong goaltender to wash out the mistakes.  If the Predators can capitalize on the inevitable turnovers and youth of their defense core, the opportunity to win the series is good.  Something else to be considered:  the Coyotes, amazingly, have not defeated a Western Conference playoff team in regulation since the second week of the season.  They have an uncanny ability to win shootouts...but as you know, there are no shootouts in the playoffs.  If the Preds can get it done at home, and steal a game or two on the road, the series looks good.  The Coyotes have a few guys that can put the puck in the net, highlighted by the white-hot steal of the deadline, Lee Stempniak.  Radim Vrbata and Wojtek Wolski are also players to watch.  However, Phoenix's scoring isn't quite as balanced as that of the Predators;  if you can shut down their top two lines, you might be able to stifle their ability to score goals outright.


In a word:  Bryzgalov. No one knows better what hot goaltending can do for a team that might not look that great on paper.  He witnessed it firsthand in the 2003 playoffs, when the-then Mighty Ducks rode JS Giguere all the way to the conference finals.  When Bryz is on, he looks borderline unbeatable.

 As mentioned previously, the Coyotes have been driven by lack of any hope that anyone has given them, either to stay in Glendale or to succeed on the ice.  That sort of motivation can be a dangerous thing to a young, hungry team. 

While I mentioned before that the Coyotes have had their struggles on the road in games not decided via shootout against playoff opponents, they're strong at home: 28-10-2, which puts them near the top of the league.  Crowd support has grown steadily as the team kept on winning, and you can expect Arena to be packed for their unlikely playoff series.

To summarize, to borrow a segment from Pete and Crispy, here's three keys to beating the Coyotes:

* Lots of shots on Bryzgalov
Keep them high...he loves to poke-check, and will sometimes go down too early.  If you can draw him down, the top half of the net will be open.  If he sees your low shot, he's going to stop it.

*Get up on them early!
They've ridden their unlikely momentum throughout the season, and have cultivated a lot of confidence from it.  Put some doubt in their one of the two opening games in Glendale to take the fans out of it a bit, and make them question whether or not they can do it.

*Smart play through the neutral zone
The Coyotes are quick, and play the active stick between the blue lines.  If you make a sloppy pass or try to get too cute, the puck is liable to end up in the back of our net.  Keep it simple, and make quick, short, smart passes.


George Richards of the Miami Herald reports that Tomas Vokoun could be in his final weeks as a Panther.  Florida was officially eliminated from playoff contention with their recent loss to the Rangers, and there was some speculation that he was close to being traded at the deadline this year, though no deal could be made.  Vokoun has 1 year remaining on his contract, and does have a NTC, though he's said to be willing to waive it, should a suitable team make an offer.

ESPN reports that rumors of a group headed by Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, and Mike Modano that is reportedly interested in purchasing the Dallas Stars from current owner Tom Hicks is untrue--at least for now.  Modano is reportedly open to future ownership, though not specifically as it pertains to this case.  Gretzky's camp vehemently denies any involvement, and Brett Hull was too busy boasting and making smartass remarks to be reached for comment.

That wraps up the first edition of The Odd Man Rush.  Tune in tomorrow, as we look at the Preds' matchup with the Vancouver Canucks.  In the us get the word out!  If you don't follow us on Twitter already, you can do so by following PredsOddManRush !  Tell your friends, let us know what you think, and we look forward to seeing you in the future! 

Also, if you have a blog that you like us to link, just drop me a line and I'd be happy to show my support.


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