This matchup pits two teams of shockingly different strengths. The Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13) enter as the Pacific Division champion and third seed in the postseason because of their excellence on defense. They were amongst the league leaders in goals allowed per game, which allowed them to hoist a division title for the first time in team history.
In contrast, the Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11) worked themselves into the postseason in the loaded Central Division on the backs of their offense. They are packed with numerous notable scorers that seemed to provide dilemmas for opposing coaches on a nightly basis. This battle of offense versus defense is always an intriguing one come playoff time.
So, let’s take a look at the important facts to the matchup.
Regular season series was won by Phoenix, 3-1.
Oct 18th — Chicago 5, Phoenix 2
Nov 29th — Phoenix 4, Chicago 1
Dec 5th — Phoenix 4, Chicago 3 (Shootout)
Feb 11th — Phoenix 3, Chicago 0
1. Pressure Mike Smith Early – As I said before, the Coyotes are best known for their defense. This is primarily because of the play of surprise goaltender Mike Smith, who won 38 games and posted an impressive 2.21 goals against average. However, before this year Smith had never won more than 14 games in a season and he isn’t very experienced in the postseason. So, with the success of Phoenix placed on his shoulders, I think it is imperative that the Blackhawks score early if they want to win the series. This will put pressure on Smith, which could force him into mistakes he typically wouldn’t make (similar to Ilya Bryzgalov in past years for those of you long-time Coyotes fans).
2. Steal A Game In Phoenix Early — The Blackhawks, like many other teams in the NHL, are not very good on the road (18-18-5), but do succeed very highly at home (27-8-6). Therefore, to give them a better chance in the series they must find a way to steal a game in Phoenix since only three games are played in Chicago. This is a key that is much less significant to a team like the Coyotes because they have showed the ability to win both at home and on the road, so I wouldn’t expect them to fold if they lose early. The home/road combination in the playoffs is always very interesting.
1. Contain the Big 4 – Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and (the finally healthy) Jonathan Toews are arguably the best four players you will find on a single roster in the NHL. In the regular season they combined for 269 points, which is a scary total from an opposing point of view. With that being said, I think you can all understand why it is pivotal for the Coyotes to slow this crew down. Now, I do admit that it is impossible to completely stop them; but, if you make another (perhaps less talented) player beat you then you have to like your chances.
2. Find Power Play Success – Although a good defense can usually propel a team to victory, this series may call for some kind of offensive success from Phoenix. And, what better way to find the back of the net then on the man advantage? Well, that’s easier said then down for the Coyotes. This year they were ranked 29th in the NHL in power play efficiency, which is simply not good enough to beat the Blackhawks if Mike Smith is having an off day. Fortunately, Chicago isn’t unbreakable on the penalty kill, so achieving this key may not be too difficult.
Player to Watch
Jonathan Toews, Center, Chicago Blackhawks
There’s no denying that each of the big four offensive options for the Blackhawks are very talented; but, Toews may be the best. He posted 57 points with a plus 17 rating in only 59 games this season. Unfortunately, he was held to just 59 games because of a lingering injury that certainly hurt the offensive numbers of Chicago down the stretch. His last appearance in a game came back on February 19th, which feels like centuries ago.
Fortunately for Blackhawk fans, Toews is expected to return just in time for the postseason, which is unbelievably big if he’s truly healthy. He posted four points in the four meetings with Phoenix during the regular season, so he could obviously make an immediate impact against this very good defensive opponent. Make sure to keep an eye on him once he hits the ice!
I may be partial to the lovable stories in the NHL, which is what leads me to pick the Phoenix Coyotes in this series. They came together with a fairly unknown netminder to capture their first division championship, which has made for an already memorable season. But, I don’t think they’re finished yet. Any team that can defend the puck the way that they do can surpass an inconsistent opponent like the Chicago Blackhawks.
Phoenix advances, 4 games to 2