The Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13, 97 points) and Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11, 101 points) meet in a first round matchup that features two teams that finished the regular season on high notes. Phoenix closed out the regular season with five straight wins and a 7-1-2 record in their final 10 contests, leapfrogging the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings to claim the Pacific Division crown, thereby securing the third spot in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks posted a similar 6-1-3 mark, but could only manage fourth place in the highly competitive Central Division.
The Coyotes were almost equally good on the road as they were at home -- 50 home points, 47 away -- but Chicago had a marked difference between playing at the United Center (27-8-6 for 60 points) and hitting the road (18-18-5 for just 41 points). Phoenix could very well take full advantage of that fact with four of the seven games being played in the Arizona desert. After the Blackhawks won the first meeting of the year, Phoenix took the last three matchups.
With styles that could not be any more divergent, the Coyotes scored just 216 goals, while the Blackhawks scored 248 to tie the Detroit Red Wings for sixth overall in the NHL, and second-most in the West.
Radim Vrbata (35), Ray Whitney (24), and Shane Doan (22) led Phoenix in goal scoring, and the three were the only rostered players to register at least 50 points. The Coyotes did possess a balanced attack that produced nine goal scorers who hit double digits, and head coach Dave Tippett's system promoted offensive help from the blue line. Oliver Ekman-Larsson (13) and Keith Yandle (11) were both integral pieces in the Phoenix attack.
Chicago's high-powered offense features Patrick Sharp (33), Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews (each with 29), Patrick Kane (23), and Viktor Stalberg (22), who all tallied in excess of 20 times. Toews' health is a concern, as he has not played since sustaining an upper-body injury on February 19. The captain is listed as "questionable" for Thursday's series opener. Kane didn't perform up to expectations for much of the year, but did close out the season with 10 goals in his last 19 contests.
While Chicago showed a tremendous advantage at the offensive end of the rink, the Coyotes possessed an equally decided edge in their own end of the ice. Phoenix's 204 goals allowed was sixth-best in the NHL, while the Blackhawks yielded a whopping 238, which was second-worst to the Ottawa Senators' 240 of any team that qualified for the postseason.
After the top two defenders in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Chicago rounds out their blue line with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, Sami Lepisto, and 40-year-old Sean O'Donnell. Veteran Steve Montador is out indefinitely with post-concussion syndrome, so Dylan Olsen was recalled to provide depth for the 'Hawks' blue line.
The Coyotes have a big, young, mobile group of rear guards. Yandle and Ekman-Larsson are the top defenders, with Rostislav Klesla, David Schlemko, Michal Rozsival, and Adrian Aucoin forming a formidable back line. With Aucoin listed as "questionable" for the opener with an undisclosed injury, either Michael Stone or Chris Summers could see action.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Phoenix's success is the way they play a defense-first system that is adhered to by each of their five-man units -- to a fault.
It's hard to imagine that the Blackhawks are among the worst-ranked clubs in both the power play (26th - 15.2%) and penalty killing units (27th - 78.1%) -- bottom five totals in each category. While Phoenix possesses an equally horrible man advantage percentage (29th - 13.6%), the Coyotes do have the eighth-rated PK unit (85.5%).
Chicago rotated the tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, hoping that one would take charge and run with the starting goaltender duties. While he struggled for long stretches of the season, Crawford (30-17-7, 2.72 GAA, .903 save %) appears to be getting the call. Emery (15-9-4, 2.81 GAA, .900 save %) did provide stability when Crawford was at the pinnacle of his struggles and will be ready to step in should Crawford again experience difficulties.
Mike Smith has been a revelation for Phoenix. Signed as an UFA in the offseason after several inconsistent seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Smith posted a stellar 38-18-10 record with a 2.21 GAA and .930 save percentage and eight shutouts. His play filled a large hole left by the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov, and gives the Coyotes hope they can beat a very good Blackhawks club.
THE COYOTES WILL WIN IF ... Phoenix can continue their stingy defensive efforts, receive secondary scoring after the top three of Vrbata, Whitney, and Doan, and Smith gives them the netminding performances he has tendered for a good portion of the season -- especially down the stretch. If they can accomplish all three, the Coyotes could reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996.
THE BLACKHAWKS WILL WIN IF ... Toews can come back and contribute, Crawford plays like he did last season, and the Blackhawks' defense plays up to its capabilities. It's unlikely Chicago will be able to lure Phoenix into a run-and-gun style, so discipline and taking care of the puck will be paramount. If the 'Hawks make mistakes and get sloppy with turnovers that lead to scoring chances for the opportunistic 'Yotes, Chicago could face a second consecutive first round exit.