NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The end came 5:27 into overtime of game four when Vinne Hinostroza’s pass towards the crease deflected off Brad Richardson then off Mattias Ekholm and back to the veteran Richardson who tapped it home for the game-winning and series-clinching goal.
Coyotes 4, Predators 3. Arizona wins the series 3-1 and advances to the 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs after a surprising qualifying series victory.
The heartbreak for Nashville is real. The season is done just six days after it resumed after a more than four month delay due to COVID-19.
The problems for Nashville are also real.
Once again the Predators blitzed the Coyotes out the gate, taking nine of the first 10 shots and dominating the first period. And once again they had nothing to show for it.
Once again the Coyotes struck first, taking advantage of a Preds’ mistake and a rare scoring chance as Michael Grabner tucked a shot over Juuse Saros and under the crossbar for a 1-0 lead. The margin grew to 2-0 when Saros misplayed an attempt to clear the puck and Phil Kessel ripped a shot by his blocker.
The Predators fought back. Matt Duchene bounces back from his mistake in game three to deflect a Roman Josi shot from the point for a goal. Then Ryan Ellis fed Viktor Arvidsson for his third goal of the series.
Even after Arizona regained the lead early in the third, the Preds kept the rally going even without Arvidsson who suffered an upper body injury late in the second period and never returned. With the season on the line in the final minute, Ellis gloved a puck to keep it in the offensive zone and then found Filip Forsberg who one-timed a shot past Darcy Kuemper with :31.9 left to force overtime.
But there were zero lead changes in this series and Richardson’s goal helped the Coyotes win a second straight game in which they were largely outplayed. In fact, the Preds fired 43, 40 and 52 shots in the three games they lost in this series. Credit Kuemper who had his three highest save totals of the season to help the ‘Yotes advance.
The Predators will now move into a long (short) offseason with plenty of questions that need to be answered. Beyond the JOFA line, which was outstanding in its reunion, where does the secondary scoring come from on this team? Why do the costly and untimely gaffes keep happening? And who is the goaltender for this team moving forward?
Saros was not the problem for the Preds in this series. He was better than Pekka Rinne this season and deserved the start, but also didn’t match Kuemper who helped the Coyotes steal games and the series.
Would Rinne have been better? No one knows. But Rinne won the Vezina Trophy just two years ago, and even at 37 probably deserved another look as he heads into the final year of his contract.
But the biggest question the Predators must face is this; is the window closing on this team to truly compete for the Stanley Cup? General Manager David Poile built a team with youthful talent and depth. That team reached six straight postseasons, advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, won the President’s Trophy in 2018 and repeated as Central Divison champions in 2019. But over the last three years they’ve been eliminated in the second round, first round and now before the official 16-team bracket even begins.
This year’s team was the second oldest by average age of the 24 teams in the expanded postseason, yet they are one of the first teams evicted from hockey’s secure bubble.
The finish was heartbreaking, but also a fitting end to a frustrating series and up and down season that included just the second coaching change in franchise history.
And the bottom line is that the Predators’ season is over as 16 other teams begin the true quest for the Cup they were expected to contend for.
That goal seems farther away than it’s been for quite some time.