The Phoenix Coyotes are on the brink of their first Western Conference finals thanks to their stingy goalie and the captain who traveled with the franchise from Winnipeg to the desert.
Captain Shane Doan scored in the first period, Mike Smith made 25 saves and the Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators 1-0 on Friday night to grab a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series.
"To win like this is exciting because our goaltender's so good, and we know that we go as far as he takes us," Doan said. "He's been unbelievable in this and really solidifies how important he is and how good he is."
The series will shift back to Arizona, where the Coyotes on Monday night will try and secure the franchise's first ever conference final berth.
Now the Coyotes, owned by the NHL, are 3-1 for the second straight series heading back home with the chance to advance. Chicago won Game 5 to put off elimination for a game, but Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said his message will not change.
"It's going to be the same kind of game," Tippett said. "Very little space, very little advantages and you're going to have to compete hard and hopefully we can find a way to win a game."
The Predators played without forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for the second straight game, this time the decision by coach Barry Trotz to stick with the lineup that won 2-0 on Wednesday night. Trotz said he refuses to second-guess his decision, though lineup changes are likely.
"Plain and simple, we've got to win a hockey game," Trotz said. "That focus can't go any farther than that. Winning a hockey game, and it's going to have to be in Phoenix. I know when you're down in a series 3-0, the numbers don't look good. At 3-1, a number of teams have come back."
The Predators thought they tied it with 7:12 remaining. But officials waved off the power-play goal with the official explanation that a whistle blew before the puck crossed the line. Trotz said he didn't get an explanation with officials telling captain Shea Weber a different reason.
"They said that [Patric] Hornqvist pushed the goaltender into the net. If you look at it, I don't buy that," Trotz said.
The Predators wound up outshooting Phoenix 25-24, but they had chances with the net open they simply missed with Radulov and Kostitsyn on the sideline. Smith, the low-budget replacement for Ilya Bryzgalov after the Russian left the desert for a big contract with Philadelphia, credited his teammates with pressuring the Predators into making some bad shots.
"We were so aggressive," Smith said. "We didn't give them much, kept them to the outside and when they did get opportunities we had stick on puck. We had guys lying down blocking shots. My D was tremendous tonight. They have been good all playoffs long, but this is one of the better games they've played in front of me."
Radulov leads Nashville with a team-high six points in the postseason, and Kostitsyn is tied for the team lead with three goals. Fans cheered the announcement that the two were scratched after they were suspended for Game 3 for an apparent curfew violation last weekend in Arizona.
Nashville had plenty of chances, outshooting Phoenix 10-5 in the third. The Predators even got a power play at 11:34 when Coyotes defenceman Derek Morris cleared the puck over the glass and went to the box. The Predators had a scrum in front of the net after Mike Fisher threw the puck at the net, but the official behind the net immediately waved no goal.
Phoenix improved to 4-1 on the road in the postseason, spoiling what had been a big party in Nashville with three blocks of Broadway shut down right in front of the arena. The Predators put two big TVs outside for fans to cheer but didn't give them much to yell about.
The Coyotes outskated and outshot Nashville from the start, coming with much more energy. They even got a power play 90 seconds in only to see the Predators kill that. Then Ryan Suter had a turnover near the net, and Coyotes left wing Mikkel Boedker had a chance on Pekka Rinne right in front before the six-foot-five Finn blocked it with his right pad.
Fans did their best to try and spark the Predators with their usual standing ovation through a timeout in the first period to a catfish tossed onto the ice early in the third. Nothing helped the Predators' aim getting past Smith into the net.
"Their goalie was phenomenal tonight," Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter said. "It was definitely the toughest game to get anything going."
Nashville went 0 for 3 with the man advantage. The first came when Rostislav Klesla was penalized for boarding Predators forward Matt Halischuk right in front of the Coyotes' bench. Replay showed Klesla appeared to grab Halischuk's jersey before pushing him into the boards, and Halischuk went to the locker room briefly. But the Coyotes, perfect in killing penalties on the road this postseason, did it again.
Doan scored on a backhander as he skated across the slot with the puck going off the stick of Predators defenceman Roman Josi and over Rinne's right pad at 14:25 of the first.
The Predators came out with more energy in the second but struggled to get a shot on net. Hornqvist had Nashville's best chance around the six-minute mark when Smith came just out of the crease to handle the puck, and Hornqvist missed the net. The Predators struggled so much they couldn't even go on a 2-on-1 chance before being called for offsides later in the second.
With Smith in net, Doan's goal proved to be enough with the way the Coyotes played in front of him. They blocked 10 of Nashville's first 15 shots, and Smith either covered up or gloved the others.
The Predators, who owned the league's best power play this season, are 0 for 23 on the power play at home in the playoffs.