Playoff hockey!

Last night, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators played an overtime game full of scoring chances that was rife with excitement and emotion, much to the surprise of a whole bunch of people who had written it off as a series that was going to be loaded with trapping and defensive content.

Certainly neither of Nashville’s goals were of all-world quality. A number of their Grade-A chances were foiled by the goaltending of Mike Smith. The three goals that the Predators earned were the result of dirty bounces off of shot blockers and stanchions; the first coming off a bounce on a dump-in that Brandon Yip pounced on while Smith was out of the net. Andrei Kostitsyn poked home a puck that Smith had forgotten to cover, and Martin Erat tucked home a rebound that Smith couldn’t control.

By the way, the Predators lost 4-3, but anybody watching that game could have told you two things:

A – The game was actually pretty exciting, with lots of good chances for both teams

B – Nashville probably deserved the game, but Smith was all-world in the third period and the overtime. He stopped 39 pucks in all, including 24 in the latter half of the game. Despite allowing three goals, he was befit with a save percentage of .929 and a quality start. He’s now batting 7/7 in quality starts this postseason and has 12 straight to his name dating back to March 24th, picking the right time to get hot.

This picture needs more Mikkel.

A lot of people look at the fact that Nashville and Phoenix allow not too many goals as an indicator of a trap hockey club, or one that’s stifling defensively. I don’t buy that, since in the games that I’ve tracked scoring chances featuring the Coyotes and Predators, the numbers have generally been higher than average (my pal Thom tracked a game where both teams combined for 51 scoring chances, while 25-30 is the norm).

A club’s defensive ability is reflected in its ability to restrict shots, and a club’s ability to play an exciting hockey game is reflected in its ability to create scoring chances. The Phoenix Coyotes are 16th out of 16 teams in the playoffs as far as “shots per game” goes, and were 28th out of 30 in the regular season.

Without scoring chances numbers for the team (I really do think that a blogger from every club ought to be counting scoring chances for every game, since it makes this sort of analysis way easier) there’s no real way to tell whether Phoenix plays an open hockey game or a closed one. In my experience watching the team, the play is more open, as it is with Nashville.

Since a lot of critics of this matchup live in the Eastern timezone and neither the Predators or Coyotes are real sexy teams to pay attention to unless you have a rich fondness for the #Moneypuck side of hockey (hello), these teams probably didn’t get the credit they deserved outside of the markets they actually play in.

Of course, one game isn’t going to tell us anything. One good, close game filled with lots of good chances for each team that goes to a lengthy overtime doesn’t mean that every game will be so. I expect the teams to probably tighten up slightly from here on out and the goaltending will be a little better, but still, it’s the amount of chances, not goals, that really matters.

Both teams have a good number of forwards that can create offence: all six Nashville forwards who were top six in ice-time per game had a shooting percentage of higher than 10%, which can imply a lot of capitalization on scoring chances, or open play that results in a lot of odd-man rushes after being hemmed in their own zone for periods at a time.

(I actually think it’s the latter. Nashville have a terrible puck-possession rate. They were beaten last night at their own game. However they’ve played more in the opponent’s end since they’ve brought Alexander Radulov over from Russia.)

Phoenix have found a similar scoring balance, led by Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney. What strikes me about their team is how depth players like Mikkel Boedker, Gilbert Brule and Taylor Pyatt all have an offensive component to their game as well. They weren’t taken on this team because they’re checking forwards.

As Game One showed, this series will be better than people gave it credit for, which is much more than I can say about whatever St. Louis and Los Angeles will throw our way.

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