The Phoenix Coyotes have now made the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Much like when the Arizona Cardinals qualified for the playoffs after a long period of futility, this year has been less of a surprise and more a "oh, those guys are in it again."
That doesn't make it any more an uplifting story for a franchise that's been on life support for, well ... lets just say way too long. It is the playoffs, however, so those things no longer matter, and if they do to anyone in that locker room right now, they won't be in the playoffs for that long.
That said, facing the Detroit Red Wings again will be a challenge, and this time, they don't even have home ice. (Can you believe the Phoenix Coyotes had home ice advantage on the Red Wings last year? Seems improbable, but it happened.)
Though the Red Wings have that advantage, don't forget that Phoenix went 2-1 at the Joe Louis Arena during last year's battle, on the road to the Wings eventual seventh-game blowout triumph in Glendale. The Coyotes still have a chance to be the NHL's Cinderella story, and this time they have the actual underdog seed to work with.
Ilya Bryzgalov was a rock in goal once again for the Coyotes, a big reason to believe in this bunch. He finished top-10 in wins, games played, saves, shutouts and minutes played. With a less-talented defense in front of him than last year, Bryzgalov still managed a 2.48 goals against and a .921 save percentage. He will need to steal at least one on the road, but if the Coyotes have a big advantage in this series, it's the big Russian goalkeeper.
That's because, even at age 27, the Red Wings remain unsure of just what they have in Jimmy Howard. At times very good, at times awful, Howard won 37 games, but had a 2.79 GAA (36th in the league) and a .908 save percentage (33rd). Can he beat a team by himself? Who shows up if he doesn't play particularly well? Is it Joey MacDonald? Do we ever see Chris Osgood again? I hate to beat the dead horse once more, but the Red Wings will not win this series if they don't get even average goaltending, something I'm not so sure Howard can give them.
The edge is with the Coyotes.
The big news, of course, is that Henrik Zetterberg will miss the start of this series with an apparent knee injury, though he is expected return at some point. Of course, we all know the Red Wings are loaded upfront regardless. Pavel Datsyuk is ridiculously talented, Johan Franzen comes alive for the post-season, Dan Clearly, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Hudler ... the list goes on and on. They have not one, but two big lugs that can stand in front of the net and keep your goalie from ever seeing a thing in Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi. If the full cast is reunited, they can put a 5-spot on any team in any game.
Shane Doan led the Coyotes with 20 goals and 60 points, and he is unquestionably the leader of the club. Note that I didn't say "leader of the pack." I'm proud of myself for not doing so. Anyway, Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata, Lauri Korpikoski, Lee Stempniak, Taylor Pyatt and Martin Hanzal are all decent support forwards, but none could crack twenty goals aside from Doan. FACT: The Coyotes had three 19-goal scorers this season. How is that even possible? The edge goes to Detroit.
Nicklas Lidstrom, you guys. That dude is ... really good at hockey. There's little else you can say about the four-time. Stanley Cup Champion, Conn Smythe Trophy winner, six-time Norris winner, and 12-time All-Star. He's won on every possible stage at the professional level, and he's had himself another terrific season. Brian Rafalski is an excellent running mate, and perhaps the best #2 defenseman in hockey. Nicklas Kronwall is healthy. Jonathan Ericsson, Ruslan Salei and Brad Stuart make for an excellent supporting cast.
Okay, you guys are gonna' have to believe me, but - at least offensively - Keith Yandle is as good as Lidstrom. If Yandle played in any market, on any team that got attention for anything other than it's inability to find someone who will pay money to keep the team where they are, Yandle would be a superstar. Talented at both ends, poised, and now playoff tested. Expect him to turn heads once again. That said, once you get past Yandle - and remember that the Coyotes no longer have Zbynek Michalek - you have to put your faith in guys like Adrian Aucoin, Michal Rozsival and Derek Morris. Plus, what does Ed Jovonovski have left in the tank? Some of this Yotes defense could run out of gas.
The edge goes to the Red Wings.
Detroit, to little surprise, is one of the best in the league at executing on the power play. They were fifth-best in the league, striking at 22.3% on the man advantage. The Coyotes are, uh, not as good at that. They finished tied for 23rd in the NHL at 15.9%. Phoenix is also 28th in the league at drawing penalties, while Detroit is 12th-best.
On the penalty kill, Detroit is middle of the pack. The Red Wings killed off 81.2% of penalties during the regular season, good for a mediocre 17th in the circuit. It is certainly better than the Coyotes, who finished 26th in the league with a 78.4% penalty kill rate. Both teams scored five goals this season while shorthanded.
The Wings have the edge.
Game 1: Wed., April 13 at 7 p.m.
Game 2: Sat., April 16 at 1 p.m.
Game 3: Mon., April 17 at 10:30 p.m.
Game 4: Wed., April 20 at 10:30 p.m.
Game 5*: Fri., April 22 at 7 p.m.
Game 6*: Sun., April 24 at TBD
Game 7*: Wed., April 27 at TBD