Had Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith sent the puck into an empty net across the ice in the waning moments of Game 5, it would have been wholly appropriate.
His stonewalling of opponents is the reason the Coyotes have advanced to their first Western Conference Final; and scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators would have been the ultimate insult to a team that struggled all series to score one on him.
Despite being the higher seed in their semifinal victory, there's a sense that the Coyotes are playing with house money in this postseason — perhaps due to their ownership situation or salary structure or low expectations, decades in the making.
The Nashville Predators, on the other hand, are a franchise that went all-in for a Stanley Cup run that lasted two rounds and 10 games. It's a franchise facing a window of opportunity that may have inched toward closing, depending on what Ryan Suter and Shea Weber decide about their future (and what GM David Poile decides about them).
The Predators have been in the Coyotes' position before — shocking the world, livin' the dream, happy to be there. It's a credit to the maturity of the franchise and its fans that those are no longer satisfactory expectations. On The Forecheck's poll of Predators fans found 68-percent of over 200 respondents were disappointed with the season's results.
In a 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff push for a championship, the Predators fell unexpectedly and insufficiently short. What went wrong?
Simply put, the Predators lost to a team whose play and plan they inspired. GM Don Maloney called them "a model" for the Coyotes, "mirror images of each other, quite frankly, when it comes to style, commitment and work ethic."
In the Western Conference semifinals, the Coyotes looked like an upgrade on the original model:
• Mike Smith outplayed Pekka Rinne; the bargain basement free agent besting the $7 million-a-year franchise goalie. That stings. He stopped 150 of 159 shots and got exemplary help from his defenders to keep those chances low percentage. Said Colin Wilson after the game:
"We were trying to get to the inside. I think that's where we were scoring our goals, we were trying to do that a little bit more, but rebounds and things like that, for some reason, were just slipping off our stick or he was just making a great save. So, you've got to give them credit and their defense credit. It was a great job by them."
• While the Coyotes played stout defense in front of Smith, Josh Cooper of The Tennessean writes that the Predators "lost their way" defensively:
Every time it did this, the Coyotes made them pay. Difficulty clearing the zone at the start of the second period led to Derek Morris' goal. Missed coverage on a backcheck led to Martin Hanzal's goal. In the first round, when Nashville made errors, it seemed like Pekka Rinne stopped all of them. Maybe the quality of Detroit's chances weren't as good. In this round, whenever there was a mistake, it seemed like Phoenix capitalized with a top-notch opportunity.
• Barry Trotz was outcoached.
He's not the first nor the last to have that occur with Dave Tippett on the other bench, but he was outmaneuvered on and off the ice. He couldn't find the right combinations or scheme to create chances in front of Smith, never getting him out of his comfort zone.
Off the ice … look, whether it was the moral code of the Predators or an opportunity to shake them out of their funk, sitting Alex Radulov and Andre Kostitsyn after the curfew violation worked. It galvanized the team for a game, and they were back in the series after going down 0-2.
I supported Trotz in going with that same lineup in Game 4 — he owed it to the room. But it's clear, now, that their offense was missed in that game and the decision may have created a disturbance for Nashville.
"We were fortunate that Nashville had a major distraction. That made it harder for them. My opinion was that the distraction was something they had to spend a lot of time thinking about. We just concentrated on winning."
While that's mostly on Radulov and Kostitsyn for their misbehavior, "they had to spend a lot of time thinking about it" because Trotz extended the controversy beyond one game.
So where was the problem? It's got to fall on the coaching staff. The first series was a thing of beauty. The Preds dispatched the team they never could quite get by and after those first five games everything looked just wonderful. But then came the Coyotes, sending the season into a burning mess and driving it off a cliff.
Everyone said this postseason would be a defining one and boy was it ever. The Radulov/Andrei fiasco will certainly go down in infamy as the turning point in the postseason. I liked what I saw in Game 3, and said that I thought Trotz should stick with the same lineup for Game 4. But that's why I don't get paid to coach hockey, apparently.
Trotz put the two back in the lineup in Game 5, but by then it was too late. The Coyotes weren't going to spoil their chance to have the best day in their franchise's history, and credit them for getting it done.
Trotz has a .537 winning percentage in the regular season. His playoff winning percentage is .380.
Tippett's is .464. Darryl Sutter's is .500. Ken Hitchcock's is .538. Peter Laviolette's is .531. John Tortorella's is .507.
There isn't a more Teflon coach in the NHL than Barry Trotz, who could win the Jack Adams every season without anyone pitching a fit. Does this series, and his actions within the series, begin to change that?
Ditto for David Poile, who probably has the NHL GM of the Year Award wrapped up, again providing evidence that the award is utterly pointless without postseason reflection.
Maloney augmented his roster with players like Antoine Vermette, who perfectly filled several needs for the Coyotes during this postseason. It was a solid move that wasn't an indication Phoenix was all-in this season; hell, it could have been made for next year.
Poile was far more aggressive, and short-sighted: Bringing in Hall Gill, Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad and Radulov around the deadline. None of them played particularly poorly, but the question remains if Poile changed the recipe to dramatically late in the season.
It's always easy to be an arm-chair quarterback after the fact. Let me ask you this: Had Poile not added any bodies to his contending roster, would he not have been hammered for not doing anything to help put his team over the top?
"I don't regret anything," Poile said. "First of all, it was fun. To a man, we all felt we had a legitimate chance to compete with anyone. It was an exciting time, from the trading deadline on, with the additions that we made. It's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to try and compete. In previous years, we weren't able to do that either because our club wasn't good enough or our ownership wasn't in a position to allow us to do that. Like I said, I don't regret anything."
(Not even the first-rounder for Gaustad?)
Poile made his push because this may have been the Predators' best chance at a Stanley Cup. Radulov's probably headed back to Russia. Ryan Suter is a UFA, and will likely test the market. Shea Weber is an RFA, and a decision has to made about his future.
The next two summers will, eventually, write the final chapter on the Predators' 2012 playoff run. It's either a growing pain for a burgeoning future champ, or a missed opportunity that will never come again for this group.
For now, the bitter disappointment lingers like an echoing dog howl in Glendale.
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