Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE
The Phoenix Coyotes find themselves in an unusual place entering the second full week of the 2013 season: dead last in the Western Conference. What do the Desert Dogs need to do against the Nashville Predators to start climbing up the ladder towards the Top 8 seeds?
The Coyotes will complete the circuit of playoff rematches tonight when the Nashville Predators come to town. As most Coyotes fans remember, Nashville was ousted in the Western Conference Semifinals by the Coyotes in 5 games, thanks in no small part to the play of Mike Smith and Ray Whitney. But with no guarantees that either of these two will be in action tonight, the team that skates against the Preds will have a much different look than the one that skated against them 8 months ago.
The Coyotes aren't the only team that will look different in this game however. Most notably, Nashville lost Ryan Suter in the offseason to the Minnesota Wild, and nearly lost Shea Weber to a Philadelphia Flyers offer sheet. One familiar face that Coyotes fans will see again is Pekka Rinne, the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate who seems to backstop every Predators game. Nashville is currently in 8th place, and because of their similar style of play, this game could be an important barometer to measure the quality of this Coyotes team.
Five for Winning
Capitalize on Opportunities: Pekka Rinne is an excellent goaltender, which means there aren't likely to be a whole lot of high quality scoring chances. The Coyotes need to make the most of their power play opportunities and any mistakes made by the Nashville defensive end.
Be Prepared to Go the Distance: The Predators have gone to extra time in three of their first five games, while the Coyotes have been frustratingly unable to put a 60 minute game together this year. More than anything, the Coyotes need to come away from this game with at least a point.
Play Smart: Although the defense is beginning to show signs of improvement, there are still too many neutral zone turnovers and ill-advised passes that have led to scoring chances and goals. The Coyotes need to make the simple plays in their own end to keep the pressure off the D and the goaltender
Make Rinne's Life Difficult: As mentioned above, Rinne is pretty good at his job. The Coyotes can make his job much harder if they can consistently obstruct his vision and put a lot of pucks on net.
Stay Solid in Net: Jason LaBarbera has done an admirable job in goal with Mike Smith out. Regardless of who is in goal tonight, the Coyotes will need their netminder to at least keep them in the game.
Players to Watch
Martin Erat is currently tied with Patric Hornqvist for the lead on the Predators with 4 points on the year (2G, 2A). With Hornqvist out for an indefinite period of time with back issues, Erat will be asked to do more offensively.
Although he played Saturday night, Martin Hanzal didn't look like he was 100% healthy against the Los Angeles Kings. The Coyotes will desperately need his big frame in front of Pekka Rinne to prevent him from seeing the puck.
Projected Starting Goalies
Rinne typically gets the lion's share of work in net anyways for the Preds, and with each game meaning more in a shortened season, there's no reason to believe that trend won't continue this year.
There's still no word as to when Mike Smith will return to full action for the Coyotes, although it will probably be soon. Thankfully, Jason LaBarbera has played several strong games in a row for Phoenix. If Smitty isn't ready to go tonight, LaBarbera will be tasked with keeping pace with Pekka Rinne.
UPDATE: Chad Johnson will get the start in net tonight for the Coyotes.
Nashville will be without Patric Hornqvist for an extended period of time after he left Saturday's game against the Anaheim Ducks with a back injury. Paul Gaustad, who skated in that game, appears to be healthy enough to continue playing.
For perspective from the Predators' side of the ice, check out our SBNation sister blog, On the Forecheck, and join us back here later for 3 questions about the Preds, the gameday thread and post-game reaction.