Nashville At Phoenix, Game 5, 10:00 p.m. EDT
With or without Rostislav Klesla, the Phoenix Coyotes have the Nashville Predators backed into a corner in their Western Conference semifinal series.
The upstart Coyotes are up 3-1 in their best-of-seven series and can advance to a conference finals matchup with Los Angeles with a victory over the Predators on Monday night. The Kings completed a four-game sweep of St. Louis on Sunday.
But the Coyotes are mixing confidence with caution. They had a chance to close out their first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks at home but lost in overtime in Game 5. Phoenix went on to a dominating 4-0 triumph on the road in Game 6.
“We’re aware it’s not going to come easy,” said Phoenix center Antoine Vermette, who played in the Stanley Cup finals for Ottawa in 2007. “We’ve been there just a couple of weeks ago. They’re going to play desperate. That’s what we saw with Chicago. You’ve got to come hard. They’re not going to give it to you.
Klesla had a hearing with NHL officials Sunday regarding his Game 3 hit on Matt Halischuk. There was no word of what punishment, if any, he faced.
“I’m planning to have him in,” coach Dave Tippett said after the Coyotes practiced Sunday. “We’ll deal with that when it comes down. We haven’t made contingency plans yet. Obviously, we have people available to play, but from looking at it I have a hard time thinking it will be a suspension.”
Speaking after practice and before the hearing, Klesla declined to get into the specifics of his case. Video replays showed that he appeared to grab Halischuk’s jersey before slamming him into the boards. Klesla received only a minor penalty for boarding.
“We’ll see what’s going to happen,”‘ he said. “I’m going to talk to them and explain what I saw and go from there. I’m preparing to play.”
The Predators went through an intense one-hour practice in Nashville on Sunday before flying to Arizona.
“There’s nowhere to hide. It is what it is,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “I think during the series we’ve played well but not well enough to be up 3-1. We haven’t buried our chances when we’ve had lots of chances. We put ourselves in this position, and we’ve got to dig ourselves out.”
After a two-game absence, forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn are expected to be back for Game 5. They were suspended for Game 3 for violating team rules, then were scratched from Game 4 because Trotz didn’t want to mess with a lineup that played so well in Nashville’s 2-0 Game 3 victory.
The players’ offense was sorely missed in Nashville’s critical 1-0 home loss Friday night in Game 4. It was the second shutout of the playoffs for Phoenix goalie Mike Smith.
“We’re getting opportunities and just not burying them sometimes,” Predators forward Mike Fisher said. “We need guys to step up and get the job done and that’s the trick we’re going to need. Just have a solid game.”
Teams have come back from 3-1 deficits in the playoffs, just not very often.
“I feel everybody knows if you take this game it’s a new series,” Nashville goalie Pekka Renne said. “We have a chance to come back after that and obviously don’t want to go too far ahead. That’s just the situation we’re in.
“You have to stick with your teammates, stay close to each other and believe in that foundation we’ve been kind of leaning toward the whole season. I think that’s our backbone and we have a pretty resilient team.”
Game 3 featured a number of pileups in front of the Phoenix net, with the Predators slamming into Smith. In one case, the puck crossed the line but the goal was waved off by the referee behind the net, saying the whistle had blown. The call was upheld after a video review,
It’s a tactic that’s worn thin on Coyotes center and team captain Shane Doan.
“It’s something we’d like to stop,” he said. “I mean, you notice that they do it every single time. It’s something that Smitty’s good at battling through but we’ve got to stop it.”
So how do you stop it?
“You’d hope the refs will see it,” Doan said. “It’s usually (Patric) Hornqvist that’s kind of doing it, trying to throw shots at Smitty all the time. You hope that from game to game it’s able to be seen. But at the same time we’ve got to do it more to theirs (Renne). If it’s going to not be called, you have to do it to theirs.”