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Finally atop division, Coyotes must overcome Hawks

Monday, 04.09.2012 / 12:05 PM / News
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Finally atop division, Coyotes must overcome Hawks
The Coyotes are looking for their first series victory since moving the desert, while the Blackhawks hope they are primed for a long run.

The Phoenix Coyotes have not made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since moving to Arizona, while the Chicago Blackhawks are looking to get back into Cup contention after sneaking into the playoffs last season and being knocked out in the first round.

After coming up short against Detroit in back-to-back years in the opening round, the Coyotes receive a new opponent in 2012. Chicago finished sixth after needing a regulation win against Detroit on the final day of the season and failing to secure one, while Phoenix clinched its first-ever Pacific Division crown with a convincing win at Minnesota.

The Coyotes' ascent to the top of the Pacific was somewhat of a surprise after the club lost goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia last summer. But general manager Don Maloney signed Mike Smith to a two-year contract, and the latter had a spectacular season that saw him win 38 games while recording eight shutouts.

The Blackhawks looked sure contenders around the season's midpoint, but a long losing streak, an unsettled situation in net and a concussion for the captain threatened to derail the season.

These two teams have never met in the postseason before. One of Bobby Hull's former franchises will advance one step closer to the Cup. Is this the year the Coyotes break through, or will the Blackhawks prove their mid-season swoon was a fluke?
Forwards
Phoenix's top three forwards -- Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Shane Doan -- provide the club with both production and experience. Whitney, 39, tallied his 1,000th NHL point this season and led the club with 77 points. Vrbata, meanwhile had a career-high 35 goals and Doan, one of the best leaders in the sport, reached the 20-goal plateau for the 11th time in his career.

There's somewhat of a dip after the top three, but Lauri Korpikoski (17 goals, 37 points) had another solid season and Raffi Torres scored 15 goals while providing plenty of grit. Increased production from the likes of Taylor Pyatt and Mikkel Boedker would certainly increase the Coyotes' chances of advancing.

Any talk of Chicago's forward depth starts with Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks' top center and captain. Toews missed most of the final stretch in the regular season recovering from concussion symptoms and his availability for the postseason is still in question. His availability will either be key in the postseason or a gaping hole.

That said, the Blackhawks were forced to figure out a winning formula without Toews and they did it down the final stretch of the regular season to secure a fourth straight postseason appearance. The usual lineup of stars -- Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa -- led the way, but Chicago also got big contributions from a couple of unexpected sources.

Viktor Stalberg eclipsed the 20-goal plateau for the first time in just his second full season, while veterans Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers provided added consistency and leadership without Toews. Rookie Marcus Kruger grew into his role centering the second line, while rookie Andrew Shaw, a hard-nosed diminutive fifth-round pick, reached double figures in both goals and assists to give the Hawks a persistent net-front presence they didn't have before he arrived.

More good news for the Hawks up front: Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell appear to be back in playoff form in their main checking-line roles.
Defensemen
The blue line has been a strength for the Coyotes all season long. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the club's first-round pick (No. 6) in 2009, had a tremendous first full season in the NHL and tallied 32 points. Keith Yandle, who is signed with the club through the 2016-17 season, led all Phoenix defensemen with 43 points.


While the rest of the blue line won't be relied upon to provide offense, it will bring stability and experience. Derek Morris and Adrian Aucoin have each appeared in more than 1,000 NHL games, while Michal Rozsival is three-quarters of the way there. Rostislav Klesla has battled injuries for the majority of his career, but is in his 10th season.
Prior to the trade deadline, Chicago's blue line was a growing concern. Behind the top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, things looked a little jumbled. The second pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy was inconsistent and the third pair -- no matter which two players comprised it -- wasn't effective enough.

Enter puck-moving defenseman Johnny Oduya just hours before the deadline in a deal with the Winnipeg Jets, and exit hulking 6-foot-8 enforcer John Scott to the Rangers. Things changed almost immediately, as Oduya's presence helped decide the roles on the back end easier.

Injuries also led to more playing time for Sami Lepisto and the call-up of tough, stay-at-home rookie Dylan Olsen to give the Hawks some much-needed depth.

Goalies
Mike Smith might be Don Maloney's best find during the latter's tenure as general manager in Phoenix.

Smith, 30, has been sensational in his first season in the desert, reaching the 20- and 30-win plateaus for the first time in his career while recording eight shutouts. His play down the stretch of the regular season played a huge role in the Coyotes' ability to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery were able to seize the starting goalie position, but it looks like Crawford is the top option heading into the playoffs.

Crawford signed a three-year contract extension last summer and came into this season as the starter, but his early-season struggles led to more opportunities for the veteran Emery -- who made the team on a tryout contract in training camp. They employ somewhat different styles, but Crawford and Emery are almost carbon copies statistically.

They both have goals-against averages hovering in the 2.80 range with save percentages sitting at about the .900 mark. They also both went through struggles at points after starting in six straight games. Crawford, however, is getting the majority of the work lately and will most likely be the guy who gets the start in Game 1.
Coaches

While Smith may have been Maloney's best find, Dave Tippett was easily the best hire.

One of the top coaches in the sport, Tippett has consistently found ways to win despite any adversity tossed in his team's direction. A Jack Adams Award winner as the League's top coach in 2010 and likely a finalist again this season, Tippett has won at least 40 games in each of the last three seasons.

That said, Tippett's Coyotes have not enjoyed much success in the playoffs. Phoenix lost a Game 7 on home ice against Detroit in the opening round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, then was swept by the Red Wings a year ago.

It's been an interesting season from the coaching standpoint. The Blackhawks got off to a great start and topped the League standings near the end of January, and Joel Quenneville collected his 600th career win along the way.

Then it all sort of fell apart in about a month's time. The Blackhawks went winless for nine straight games, plummeted from the top of the Western Conference to sixth and needed the ensuing hot streak just to prevent a further drop. Speculation also started surfacing about Quenneville's job status -- which were squashed by general manager Stan Bowman and owner Rocky Wirtz.
Special Teams

Phoenix's power play was not a strength during the regular season, as the club converted at a success rate of 13.6 percent -- ranked 29th out of 30 teams in the NHL. However, the opposition didn't enjoy much success with the man advantage against the Coyotes, as Phoenix had the eighth-best penalty killing unit in the League (85.5 percent).

Just how troublesome has the Blackhawks' lowly-rated power play been? Well, longtime Scotty Bowman confidant Barry Smith has come down from his front office position to work in practices with the Hawks' power-play units himself.

The penalty kill hasn't been much better. However, the PK's overall statistical ranking can partly be attributed to a few select terrible showings with multiple power-play goals allowed. The Hawks also struggled killing off power plays during Keith's recent five-game suspension.
Series Changer

Shane Doan, Phoenix -- The long-time Phoenix captain slumped near the end of the season and saw his point output dip to its lowest total in a decade, but he still reached 20 goals for the 11th time in 12 seasons and contributed five game-winning goals. Doan's experience and veteran leadership can't be understated at this time of year -- when he missed the final four games of the Coyotes' first-round series with the Red Wings in 2010, it was a huge blow as Phoenix lost in seven. He had three goals and five points in the rematch last spring, which Detroit swept.

Dave Bolland, Chicago -- Nobody else in the League has a guy quite like Bolland when it comes to the playoffs. The pesky, gritty third-line center always seems to pick his game up another notch or two once the Stanley Cup is at stake, and when he does it usually spells trouble for opposing star forwards. Bolland's two-way skill set allows him to be effective on every square inch of the ice -- and he usually is when the postseason rolls around.

What If ...

Coyotes will win if ... The power play can reverse its fortunes and Smith can continue his remarkable play against one of the Western Conference's top teams. Some secondary scoring behind the trio of Vrbata, Whitney and Doan would also help the Coyotes a great deal as they look to get over the hump in the postseason.
 

The Blackhawks will win if ... Crawford plays like he did a year ago in a classic seven-game loss to the rival Vancouver Canucks in the quarterfinal round. Also, if the Hawks get continued production from Kane, Sharp and Hossa, adding Toews could provide enough depth and scoring punch to push them into the second round.



Analysis by Brian Compton and Brian Hedger

Author: NHL.com Staff