You simply have to admire the fortitude the Phoenix Coyotes have demonstrated over the last three seasons. They've staved off ownership issues and an uncertain future in the Arizona desert to still remain competitive and make the playoffs, this year capturing the Pacific Division title for the first time. As their reward, they get to face a strong Chicago Blackhawks team in the #6 Western Conference seed, which just got word that their captain Jonathan Toews is back in the lineup.
The formula remains the same for head coach Dave Tippett, who captured his first Pacific Division banner despite leading the Coyotes to the least points (97) in his 3-year tenure in Phoenix. A highly-structured team defensive effort starts with supporting the goalie and building out from there, and Mike Smith has benefited from that to the point where goaltending is probably the Coyotes' biggest edge in this series. This, from Five For Howling:
Smith has a career regular season in his first full season as a starting goaltender in the NHL. With his play, especially late in the season, there has even been Vezina trophy talk nationally. He's big, athletic, and plays the role of a third defensemen for the Yotes.
With apologies to Martin Brodeur, Smith may be the best puck handling goalie in the NHL. His stick skills make life easier for his defensemen by retrieving the puck himself. This means less physical punishment on the Coyotes' blueliners and allows for quicker breakouts at times. He might remind some of Henrik Lundquist in terms of how he stays fairly deep in his own net much of the time. This is a bit of a disadvantage on breakaways when he's sometimes not aggressive enough, but in most situations its extremely helpful and gives him an extra split second to react to pucks.
The one question mark for Smith at this point is his lack of playoff experience. He played fairly well in his brief appearance for Tampa Bay last postseason, but that was an extremely small sample size.
Oh yeah, and they've also got the Phlying Phossil leading the way offensively, a guy who will turn 40 in less than a month:
|2011 - Ray Whitney||82||24||53||77||+26||28||8||0||1||185||13.0|
The Blackhawks look like one of those high-end sports cars you see in one of your neighbor's driveways, usually being worked on for one mechanical issue or another, but rarely getting out for a weekend of screaming up and down the highway. Will the return of Captain Serious put that sports car back in top condition, or as Sam wonders about at Second City Hockey, will it find a new way to misfire?
While I wrote this before the morning skate, by the time you read this it will assuredly have been announced that Jonathan Toews will be in the lineup, centering for Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. I've had this fear while waiting for Tazer's return, that with the Hawks playing so well without him (for the most part) that once he got back there would be this attitude of "ok, now everything's fine." That's not going to work. Toews should only have to add to the level that the Hawks were at, not fill in for where they drop upon his arrival. I don't think the Hawks will let their game fall, but I'm not totally sure either. It would only be natural to assume when a player who would have been a Hart candidate returns to the lineup. If the Hawks can play the same game they did without him, but then have him do what he does even just a little, I think it's going to be a very fun spring.
One steady performer for Chicago has been their leading goal-scorer Patrick Sharp, who helps give the Blackhawks two full forward lines which any team would gladly have as their #1:
|2011 - Patrick Sharp||74||33||36||69||+28||38||7||1||8||282||11.7|
And for the OTF predicitions...
The Coyotes have been another one of the feel-good stories of the NHL this year, but it looks like their run will once again come to an end in the first round. The Blackhawks are getting healthy and getting hot. Mike Smith looks to be the only hope the 'Yotes have in what could be their last season in the desert. Blackhawks in 6.
The Hawks get the edge here on recent playoff experience alone. Aside from capturing the Cup just two years ago, and despite the subsequent fire sale, the Hawks continue to be contenders, and have a formidable core group. Goaltending will be an issue, so they'll need all seven games to finish the series, but they'll do it. Blackhawks in 7.
This series hinges on the health of Jonathan Toews. With him, the Blackhawks can seize possession of the puck and pepper away at Mike Smith and the Phoenix defense. If not, the Coyotes should be able to take advantage of Corey Crawford/Ray Emery combo in goal. I'm leaning towards the latter. Coyotes in 7.