GLENDALE, Ariz. – Phoenix goalie Mike Smith stretched out to block a shot from a charging Nashville player and watched as his stick sailed to the backboards.
No way to reach his waffleboard, Smith slid back and forth across the crease, trying to stay low, throwing up his gloves whenever the puck came his direction. His teammates cleared the puck after about 30 seconds and Smith let off a sigh of relief.
“We practice that … but I’m not real comfortable with it,” Smith said.
His team should be feeling a little uneasy, too.
Despite pulling out a 4-3 win over the Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday night, the Coyotes know they have a lot of work to do to have a shot at winning the series.
That’s right. The winning team may have more adjustments to make than the losers.
The Coyotes have been playing this tightrope game to near perfection throughout the playoffs, leaning heavily on Smith and coming through with the big shot, usually in overtime.
It’s worked so far; Phoenix won its first-round series over Chicago and the opener against Nashville, becoming the first team in NHL history to go to overtime in six of its first seven playoff games.
The Coyotes know it can’t continue against the Predators, a team that plays the same kind of close-to-the-vest style and has a superb goalie of their own in Pekka Rinne.
“We’ve got to be better because sooner or later it’s going to cost us,” Coyotes forward Daymond Langkow said Saturday after practice at Jobing.com Arena. “We sit back in the third, we’ve had leads, we just need to be more aggressive. We just sat back and you can’t do that against a good team like that.”
A series that was expected to be low scoring got off to a surprising start with seven goals in the first game.
After the Predators shook off a sluggish start—they had a week off after beating Detroit in the first round—both teams played crisply in the first two periods, snapping passes, trading goals, each goalie throwing in some big saves.
Once the third period starts, Nashville picked up the pressure and dominated, spending what felt like 19 of the 20 minutes in Phoenix’s zone.
The Predators had the Coyotes chasing the entire period, outshooting them 16-1 while forcing three power plays. Martin Erat scored on the third one, with 4:42 left in regulation, and Nashville appeared to be in control headed into overtime.
But the Predators, who’ve been known to steal a game or two when they were outplayed, ended up on the short end this time, losing in overtime when Ray Whitney took a pass from Martin Hanzal and flipped it past Rinne for the game-winner and a 1-0 series lead.
“They’re opportunistic, they’ve got a great goaltender—they’re a lot like us,” Predators centre Mike Fisher. “We got some of those wins against Detroit, so we’ve seen it and know what to expect, but it was just a matter of coming up a bit short.”
In a series that was billed as a showdown between two of the NHL’s best goaltenders, Smith won round 1.
Coming off a superb regular season in his first run as a no-doubt No. 1 goalie, Smith has been spectacular during the playoffs, practically willing the Coyotes over the Blackhawks in the first round.
He had his first career playoff shutout in the clincher over Chicago in Game 6 and again was stellar against the Predators while facing nearly twice as many shots at Rinne.
Smith was at his best after Erat’s goal, flipping and flopping, stretching and splitting to reach every shot Nashville sent at him.
No stick? No problem. Smith survived the dicey stick-losing seconds in overtime and finished with 39 saves while Rinne had 20.
“He’s a good goalie, you can’t deny that,” Predators captain Shea Weber said. “He had a good series against Chicago and he was good yesterday.”
The worry for the Coyotes is that they’re relying on Smith a little too much.
Good as Smith has been, Phoenix can’t keep falling back into protection mode whenever they have a lead. Four times in the playoffs the Coyotes have allowed tying goals in the third period, in part because they’ve sat back and stopped attacking, spending far too much time in their own zone and giving up way too many good chances.
Smith has been good after giving up the late goals, leading Phoenix to four overtime victories, but the Coyotes know they’re playing with fire, particularly against an equally-opportunistic team like the Predators.
“It’s not the prettiest hockey, and people can say what they want about it, but we’ve just got to find a way to win,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “We pride ourselves as a group in doing that. Obviously, we’re pretty thankful that Smith has been as good as he’s been. At the same time, we have to be better as a group, as a whole.”
So do the Predators, who did just about everything right except the most important thing: win.