The Nashville Predators have been waiting for more than a year for some postseason redemption, and the NHL’s pause didn’t help.
The Arizona Coyotes have been trying to get back to any form of playoffs since 2012.
Now the Predators and Coyotes have a best-of-five qualifying series starting Sunday in Edmonton, Alberta, to make sure they stick around in the NHL’s postseason bubble.
“We’re here to do something,” said Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who got married in June in Sweden. “We’re not here to get knocked out early. We want to go as far as you can, as deep as we can. I feel like that’s that’s even more motivation for me doing it for my family that’s back home right now.”
The last time the Coyotes were in the playoffs, they reached the Western Conference finals by beating Nashville in five games. The Predators have reached the postseason each of the past five seasons but lost in six games to Dallas in the first round in April 2019.
Arizona also is dealing with a front-office shake-up after general manager John Chayka quit the day the Coyotes left for Edmonton. Steve Sullivan, who played six seasons with Nashville, is now the interim general manager, trying to beat one of his six former teams.
“Chayka has chosen to quit on a strong and competitive team, a dedicated staff, and the Arizona Coyotes fans, the greatest fans in the NHL,” the Coyotes said in a statement.
KUEMPER AND RAANTA
The Coyotes essentially have two No. 1 goalies, which could work out well in the condensed schedule of the Stanley Cup qualifiers.
The Coyotes traded for Antti Raanta in 2017 to be their new No. 1 goalie, and Darcy Kuemper shined when he was limited to 59 games in two seasons due to injuries.
Both missed games in the first part of the season with injuries but are healthy now. Kuemper and Raanta were both among the NHL’s save-percentage leaders early in the season. Kuemper went 16-11-2 with a 2.22 goals-against average, and Raanta was 15-14-3 with a 2.63 GAA.
Coach John Hynes has a tough decision to make on who starts in net. Pekka Rinne, a four-time Vezina Trophy finalist and 2018 winner, could make his 90th consecutive playoff start in Game 1. The best-of-five series doesn’t allow for many mistakes.
Juuse Saros started 19 of Nashville’s 30 games after Hynes took over, and the 25-year-old Finn went 11-4-0 with a 2.14 goals-against average over his final 17 appearances. He is a big reason why the Predators won their final three games before the NHL paused play in mid-March.
Arizona made one of the biggest moves of the offseason, picking up Phil Kessel in a trade with Pittsburgh.
A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Kessel was not nearly as productive his first season in the desert as he had been in previous years, in large part due to a string of injuries. Kessel still managed to stretch his consecutive games streak to 844, sixth-longest in history, and finished the regular season with 14 goals and 24 assists.
The time off allowed the 32-year-old a chance to heal, and he could give the Coyotes a big boost when the puck drops in Edmonton.
PICK IT UP
Matt Duchene was one of the big offseason signees after Nashville gave him a seven-year deal, yet he scored the fewest goals (13) in any season of his career. But he has 16 points in 18 playoff games in his career.
Center Ryan Johansen, with the largest contract ever handed out by Nashville, also is trying to turn around a disappointing season. He had only 36 points in 68 games for his lowest scoring output since his rookie season.
The Coyotes made another move to boost their scoring during the regular season, acquiring Taylor Hall from New Jersey for three prospects and two draft picks.
Hall had an immediate impact, setting up the winning goal in his first game with the Coyotes and, despite a couple of quiet stretches, had 10 goals and 17 assists in 35 games. For a team that has struggled to score in recent years, Hall could be a difference maker for Arizona in the postseason.
AP Sports Writer John Marshall contributed to this report.
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