EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Oliver Ekman-Larsson fired a shot from near the blue line that caromed off one Nashville player’s skate, another’s body and into the net.
Arizona’s eight-year wait to play a postseason game couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, even if took a lucky couple of bounces.
Ekman-Larsson scored the first of Arizona’s three first-period goals, Darcy Kuemper stopped 40 shots and the Coyotes held on to beat the Predators 4-3 Sunday to open their Stanley Cup qualifier series.
“It’s a big, big start when you get a goal like that. It gives us some momentum,” said Arizona’s Michael Grabner, who scored a breakaway goal in the second period. “We’ll take any bounces we can get, especially early on in the game and the series.”
The Coyotes made the most of their first postseason appearance since 2012 early, scoring three goals in the opening period on their way to building a 4-1 lead.
The Predators rallied behind two goals by Filip Forsberg, the second midway through the third period, to cut Arizona’s lead to 4-3.
Kuemper, who got the starting nod over Antti Raanta, held off Nashville’s late push and the Coyotes snatched momentum heading into Game 2 of the best-of-five series on Tuesday.
Christian Dvorak and Clayton Keller also scored for Arizona. Phil Kessel, healthy after struggling with injuries all season, had two assists, as did Arizona’s other major 2019-20 addition, Taylor Hall.
“We just can’t have passengers,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “We can’t afford to have four, five six guys not have their ‘A’ game. We need everybody to play and they brought it to a different level.”
Nashville rallied late and scored two power-play goals after struggling with the man advantage most of the season. The Predators just couldn’t erase the early three-goal deficit and now find themselves in a hole to start the postseason.
Ryan Ellis also scored for Nashville and Juuse Saros stopped 33 shots.
“We came out playing really well the first 10 minutes,” Forsberg said. “Obviously, they’re a great team and are going to have chances, too. A lot of shots and a couple of bounces, but we could have handled that first period a little better.”
Nashville was sixth in the Western Conference when the season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Coyotes were beneficiaries of the new playoff format for the restart, earning a spot in the qualifier after ending the regular season 11th in the West.
The Coyotes had to deal with a distraction before arriving in Edmonton, learning general manager John Chayka had resigned the day the team left for the bubble.
Once the puck dropped in Edmonton, Arizona withstood Nashville’s early jump to score the opening goal — thanks to a double carom.
Ekman-Larsson scored it midway through the first period on a shot near the blue line that hit Nashville center Kyle Turris’ skate, bounced off teammate Matt Duchene’s body and floated over Saros’ head into the net.
In danger of being run out of the rink, the Predators breathed a little life into their hopes with a lucky bounce of their own. Forsberg got it, firing a power-play shot that Kuemper initially stopped before caroming off Arizona defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson’s skate into the net with 2.5 seconds left in the opening period.
The Coyotes erased any Nashville momentum late in the second period when Grabner, Arizona’s short-handed specialist, broke free on a Predators power play and beat Saros to make it 4-1.
The Predators needed 30 seconds of the third period to gain it back, scoring when a shot by Ellis caromed off Ekman-Larsson’s skate past Kuemper. Forsberg cut Arizona’s lead to 4-3 on a power-play shot from the slot, but the Predators couldn’t get anything else past Kuemper.
“They won the first period and capitalized on their opportunities,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “We made a push, the second period was there and we had a really strong push in the third and didn’t capitalize like they did in the first.”
NOTES: Coyotes C Nick Schmaltz did not play after taking a shot to the head in Thursday’s exhibition against Vegas. … Rinne had started every Predators playoff game since 2010, a streak of 89 straight games. … Kessel had his 21st multi-point playoff game, third among active players behind Patrick Kane (34) and Joe Pavelski (24). … Forsberg is Nashville’s all-time leading postseason goals scorer with 24.
Game 2 is Tuesday in Edmonton.
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