GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes will be without defenceman Rostislav Klesla as they try to close out their Western Conference playoff semifinal series against the Nashville Predators.
On Sunday, Klesla was suspended for one game by the NHL for boarding Nashville forward Matt Halischuk in Phoenix’s 1-0 victory in Game 4.
With or without Klesla, the Coyotes have the Predators backed in a corner.
They are up 3-1 in their best-of-seven series and can advance to a conference finals matchup with Los Angeles with a victory over the Predators on Monday night. The Kings completed a four-game sweep of St. Louis on Sunday.
But the Coyotes are mixing confidence with caution. They had a chance to close out their first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks at home but lost in overtime in Game 5. Phoenix went on to a dominating 4-0 triumph on the road in Game 6.
“We’re aware it’s not going to come easy,” said Phoenix centre Antoine Vermette, who played in the Stanley Cup finals for Ottawa in 2007. “We’ve been there just a couple of weeks ago. They’re going to play desperate. That’s what we saw with Chicago. You’ve got to come hard. They’re not going to give it to you.
Klesla received a minor penalty for boarding in the Friday night incident but after the NHL reviewed, a more serious punishment was thought to be in order.
The league said Halischuk was in a defenceless position when he was hit by Klesla as the two players went after the loose puck.
Brendan Shanahan, NHL senior vice-president for player safety and hockey operations, explained the decision in a video.
“While we would not always classify a player who knows he is in race for a puck as defenceless,” Shanahan said, “on this hit, Halischuk becomes unable to defend himself when Klesla grabs his jersey and tugs him backward (before shoving him into the boards).”
Shanahan said the league had taken into account that Halischuk was not seriously injured and came back into the game. The league said that while Klesla had been suspended once before in his NHL career, it was five years ago for a different type of offence, clipping.
After practice Sunday, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said he thought the hit did not warrant a suspension but “obviously” other were players were available if the NHL ruled otherwise.
The Predators went through an intense one-hour practice in Nashville on Sunday before flying to Arizona.
“There’s nowhere to hide. It is what it is,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “I think during the series we’ve played well but not well enough to be up 3-1. We haven’t buried our chances when we’ve had lots of chances. We put ourselves in this position, and we’ve got to dig ourselves out.”
After a two-game absence, forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn are expected to be back for Game 5. They were suspended for Game 3 for violating team rules, then were scratched from Game 4 because Trotz didn’t want to mess with a lineup that played so well in Nashville’s 2-0 Game 3 victory.
The players’ offence was sorely missed in Nashville’s critical loss Friday night in Game 4. It was the second shutout of the playoffs for Phoenix goalie Mike Smith.
“We’re getting opportunities and just not burying them sometimes,” Predators forward Mike Fisher said. “We need guys to step up and get the job done and that’s the trick we’re going to need. Just have a solid game.”
Teams have come back from 3-1 deficits in the playoffs, just not very often.
“I feel everybody knows if you take this game it’s a new series,” Nashville goalie Pekka Renne said. “We have a chance to come back after that and obviously don’t want to go too far ahead. That’s just the situation we’re in.
“You have to stick with your teammates, stay close to each other and believe in that foundation we’ve been kind of leaning toward the whole season. I think that’s our backbone and we have a pretty resilient team.”
Game 3 featured a number of pileups in front of the Phoenix net, with the Predators slamming into Smith. In one case, the puck crossed the line but the goal was waved off by the referee behind the net, saying the whistle had blown. The call was upheld after a video review,
It’s a tactic that’s worn thin on Coyotes centre and team captain Shane Doan.
“It’s something we’d like to stop,” he said. “I mean, you notice that they do it every single time. It’s something that Smitty’s good at battling through but we’ve got to stop it.”
So how do you stop it?
“You’d hope the refs will see it,” Doan said. “It’s usually (Patric) Hornqvist that’s kind of doing it, trying to throw shots at Smitty all the time. You hope that from game to game it’s able to be seen. But at the same time we’ve got to do it more to theirs (Renne). If it’s going to not be called, you have to do it to theirs.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.