The Moment of Truth

The Phoenix Coyotes foiled the efforts of the Nashville Predators at every turn last Friday night in Game 4 of their Western Conference Semifinal match-up at Bridgestone Arena. In a scene typical of the Coyotes’ smothering team defense from that game, above, Phoenix forwards Martin Hanzal (left) and Radim Vrbata (right) deny Nashville forwards Patric Hornqvist and Gabriel Bourque access to the puck. The Coyotes shut out the Preds 1-0 and take a 3-games-to-1 series lead back home to Arena for Game 5 on Monday night.  (Photo: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Tip(pett) of the Iceberg?
“I think there is resilience in our group. The thing we always go back to is we know how we have to play if we’re going to be successful. Everybody has to contribute, and that’s the thing about tonight, everybody does their job or is more than willing to give everything they’ve got to get their job done. And when you do that you become a good team, and our team, we don’t get flustered over much.

“Adversity is just part of who we are. We have great leadership in the dressing room that keeps guys on the straight and narrow and we just kind of go out there and plug along and find a way to win; and that’s what we’ve done these playoffs.”

Sound like a certain hockey coach we all know? Well, it may not be the one you’re thinking about.

The buzz words are the same; the philosophy is nearly identical, however, the above quote isn’t from Nashville Predators’ Head Coach, Barry Trotz; it’s from Phoenix Coyotes bench boss, Dave Tippett.

The comments came following his team’s 1-0 victory over Nashville in Game 4 of their Western Conference Semifinal Series last Friday night at Bridgestone Arena. Tippett’s Desert Dogs bit back hard after they themselves had been whitewashed 2-0 a couple of nights earlier.

In gaining a split of the two games played in Music City, the Coyotes now take a commanding 3-1 series lead back home to Arena in Glendale, AZ, with the chance to close out the Preds with a victory.

When the puck drops on Monday night, the Predators’ first moment of truth of these 2012 playoffs will finally be at hand. The question is a simple one; will Nashville be able to answer the bell, or is the Coyotes’ latest performance just the tip(pett) of the iceberg? Has the team that freely admits it reinvented itself in the Predators’ image, successfully improved on the formula?

Happy New Gear?
No one figured the Coyotes would simply lie down after their Game 3 loss; but going into Friday night’s contest, few could have predicted their level of response to an obviously re-energized Predators team that no doubt felt as though they had relocated their mojo. After Wednesday’s win, those two straight losses in Glendale to open the series seemed like distant memories.

They’re not so distant anymore.

In Game 4, the Coyotes were able to find a gear, defensively, not yet seen in this series; they completely shut down the Predators offense. Their suffocating team effort frustrated Nashville to the extent that whenever open chances against netminder Mike Smith did present themselves – and there were indeed a few prime opportunities – many of Nashville’s highest-percentage shots appeared rushed; others missed the net entirely.

This was particularly the story of snake-bitten forward Patric Hornqvist’s night. The Preds’ ‘dirty goal’ specialist had three shots on net, officially; however, he also had four attempts that were blocked and a team-leading five shots that generated nothing but wind.

But as good as Smith was in stopping all 25 Nashville shots on net, it was his teammates’ dogged determination to get sticks on pucks and limit the Predators’ time and space in the offensive and neutral zones that rendered most of their efforts relatively impotent.

Will Over Skill
Somewhat surprisingly, after the game Tippett offered little more than confident affirmation on behalf of his team, couching his comments in such a way that suggested the outcome of the game was almost exactly as he drew it up.

“After not getting the win last game we talked this morning about how we needed to get a split out of here if possible and have a chance to go back home and close it out,” Tippett began, matter-of-factly, “The game went exactly how we kind of anticipated. I thought it was going to be tightly contested – maybe a break here or there gives one team an edge – and that’s exactly what happened. Second period, we got hemmed in a little bit … and iced the puck a few times, but out of all the time in our zone they didn’t create a lot in on our net. Our guys did a real good job of defending hard in some key areas, and found a way to let the one goal stand up.”

Later, when a Phoenix writer asked to him rank the effectiveness of what she (and most everyone else in the room) rather obviously considered a marvelous all-around defensive game by the Coyotes, Tippett once again almost downplayed the effort as though it was what was just another day at the office, explaining, “Like I say, this is exactly how we thought the game would go, and I thought our guys did a great job. We prepared for a game like this and – [when] you get in tight games like that you’ve gotta find a way to win. We got the break that allowed us to win.”

Still the questions came, asking Tippett to attribute such a stellar defensive effort to at least something the Coyotes did; something quantifiable; again Tippett hedged. “It’s just ‘compete’; I think it’s less about structure and more about just the will to get the job done. … It’s just competitive hockey.”

Bingo, Coach.

Dave Tippett, like Barry Trotz believes in will over skill. Oh, don’t get me wrong, skill is great – wonderful, even – and both of their teams have lots of it; however, neither the Coyotes nor the Predators’ team philosophy is to engage opponents in run-and-gun offensive battles. Both coaches have based their teams’ respective emphasis on the consistent action of frustrating their opponents with an unrelenting effort to maintain pressure on the puck; taking away their time and space, creating turnovers, and drawing penalties that lead to offensive opportunities at the other end of the rink. Each team’s strength radiates from the back end forward, where world-class goaltenders provide their final and most formidable line of defense.

This is where the old maxim ‘offense sells tickets but defense wins championships’ comes into play; this is where the well-worn phrase ‘hard to play against’ goes from characteristic to mission statement.

In order to be successful, it’s obvious that such a philosophy requires absolute by-in from everyone involved, and therein lies the problem in implementing such a system, successfully – and why more teams can’t or don’t even try. It’s a tricky circumstance for many, requiring total deference to the group dynamic over that of the individual. Some players simply can’t handle it. Some coaches simply can’t teach it.

However, when total sellout to the ideal is achieved by a team like the Predators or Coyotes, it’s their Golden Ticket. All things truly become possible; the sky is the limit. The immovable object will defeat the irresistible force more often than not.

Regardless of the coach-speak narrative in which he might try to encapsulate it, Tippett’s Coyotes achieved defensive nirvana in Game 4 on Friday night. They played as perfectly as anyone could versus an opponent whose game was very nearly as good. And it’s apparent that extra level they attained carried the added benefit of not only robbing Nashville of their offensive time and space, but perhaps, a bit of their confidence as well, as witnessed by the close-range missed net attempts they would likely have buried otherwise.

The obvious question remains: can the Coyotes do it again? Can they maintain that high gear for the remainder of the series? Will they need to?

Can the Predators return the favor? Can they remaining in step with Phoenix, as they appeared to do on Friday, save for the game’s lone goal (by veteran forward Shane Doan) coming off an incidental tip from Preds’ defenseman Roman Josi’s stick? And to that end, in a series in which nearly every game has turned on an at least somewhat fluky goal, which of these nearly identical twins will the hockey gods give the nod tonight in Game 5?

Whose mistake will ‘the learning’ come from?
I suppose the $64,000 question at this point becomes, when all is said and done, whose mistake (or perceived one) will provide the most effective lesson learned for the Predators? Will it be that of suspended forwards Alexander Radulov and Andre Kostitsyn, who Trotz held out for both Games 3 and 4 after violating curfew during the initial trip to Phoenix? Or will it be, as some are suggesting, the decision of Trotz to add that second game to the original one-game suspension, considering the nature of the resulting loss for Nashville? How much of a difference would their considerable offensive skill have made in Game 4? Could they have managed to hit the net when Hornqvist and Mike Fisher could not? Or was Phoenix just so dialed in – as Nashville had been on Wednesday – that it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d had Mario Lemieux in the lineup? On the other hand, would or could the Predators have played the same stout defensive game they did with the Rads and AK46 in the game.

Some of these things we’ll never know; however, if the Preds come and win this series in seven games, we probably won’t care. With regard to the fallen forwards, both Radulov and Kostitsyn will be in the lineup tonight, and both are said to be “highly motivated.” It will highly interesting to see how things play out.

Also interesting to see will be the effect of someone who won’t be in the the Yotes’ lineup tonight, top defenseman, Rostislav Klesla, who was suspended for the game by the league’s Department of Supplementary Discipline for his boarding penalty hit at the expense of Nashville forward Matt Halischuk in Game 4 on Friday. The one-game suspension was announced Sunday after the league reviewed the play.

Fortunately for everyone, there isn’t a lot of time left to think about it. Tonight is the first – or last – day of the rest of Nashville’s season; it’s win or go home. They’ll simply have to find a way to regain the magic of Game 3; they’ll have to find a way to respond, as Tippett’s squad did on Friday or start setting up tee times for the summer – one of the two.

The moment of truth is at hand for Nashville. It’s up to them to prove whether or not they’ve come as far as they believe they have as an organization, or to accept the sobering realization that Phoenix has actually done a better job of implementing the Predators’ organizational philosophy than they have.

It’s generally assumed that in the short run the repercussions of how this season ends which will weigh heavily upon the composition of this team. The decisions of defensive partners Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as pending UFA and RFA free agents are believed to be inextricably tied to the depth of this current playoff run, but no knows that for sure.

The only things the Predators know is that they have to win. And they have to win tonight.


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