Jim Neveau, Managing Editor
After an emotional overtime triumph in Game 5 of this series in Glendale, the Chicago Blackhawks wanted to make a statement against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday at the United Center, and they did just that. They came out of the gate firing in a big way, but in the end, it was Mike Smith and the Coyotes who prevailed, as they survived the early onslaught and scored three times in the third period to ice the victory and their first playoff series win since 1987 when they were still the Winnipeg Jets.
By winning the series, the Coyotes set up a second round date with the Nashville Predators, and they further endeared themselves to a fan base that is still unsure of whether or not their time in the Valley could be drawing to a close.
Setting aside all that ownership talk and discussions about what the second round of the playoffs will bring for the team, it would behoove us to take one final look at the series’ final game, and see what we learned not only about the victorious Coyotes, but also the tough luck losers from Chicago.
Blackhawks Came Out Strong, But Fizzled
One of the biggest beefs that a lot of Hawks fans had with the team during this series is that their intensity level just seemed to be lacking at times. Especially in the middle portion of games, it seemed as though a lot of players, including stars like Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, were just going through the motions, and the prevailing wisdom was that if they did not up that intensity level, they were eventually going to be buried by Phoenix.
On Monday night, the Hawks showed more jump and determination than they had at any other point in the series. Whether it was because their backs were against the wall or some other reason, the Hawks were aggressive on offense, played a great deal of defense, and were by far the more aggressive team in just about every area of the game. Sharp and Patrick Kane led the way in the intensity department, and after the first period alone, the Hawks had outshot Phoenix 16-2.
After a second period that saw them again ratchet up the intensity, the Hawks were massively outshooting the Coyotes, but it was Phoenix that held a 1-0 lead, and that knowledge seemed to deflate the Hawks, who looked defeated and disinterested throughout the third period. After Jimmy Hayes’ foolish boarding penalty and the subsequent power play goal by the Coyotes, it was game, set, and match, and once again Hawks fans were left to wonder why the team wasn’t able to put together a total 60 minute effort even in a game where losing meant going home for the summer.
When Needed, Mike Smith Showed Serious Hart
During the first five games of this series, Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith had shown flashes of the brilliance that helped carry the team to its first ever Pacific Division title, but there weren’t really any prolonged periods where it felt like he was owning the ice. On Monday, however, that all changed as the Hawks charged out of the gate, and the veteran goaltender did not bat an eyelash.
His movements almost look like he isn’t trying, but the fact of the matter is that Smith is a very instinctual goaltender, and he seemed to be locked into the correct position every time the Hawks would fire a puck at the net, and as the rest of his team was reeling and losing their minds under the relentless pressure by Chicago at both ends of the ice, it was Smith who stood tall and kept the Coyotes in the game.
Before the series, critics of the Coyotes had derided them as a squad blessed with a hot goalie who carried their sorry butts to home ice advantage in the first round, but as the series wore on, it became increasingly apparent that this team was more than just their goalie. In Game 5, however, Smith showed that he indeed is a guy capable of stealing a game when he needs to, and no matter what Chicago threw at him, he was ready for everything.
With that kind of performance, it’s no small wonder that Smith has been hailed as a contender not just for the Vezina, but also for the Hart Trophy for MVP as well. He also solidified himself as a prime contender to Claude Giroux for the Conn Smythe should the Coyotes continue to progress through the playoffs, but as any Phoenix fan will tell you, they’re taking it one round at a time.
Flashes of Brilliance and Ineptitude Shine Light On What Could Have Been for Chicago
The Blackhawks may have gone down with a whimper in the third period on Monday, but there were a few things that stood out about their performance that may provide some clues as to what this team can expect next season.
First and foremost, this team has to undergo some massive changes on the power play. Assistant Coach Mike Kitchen is almost certainly going to get the boot after this abysmal showing in the playoffs, and even in this game when the Hawks were completely dominating in 5-on-5 situations, it was as though their brains were shut off when the power play would begin. That kind of failure with that much talent on offense is completely unacceptable, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he remains on the bench alongside Joel Quenneville next season.
In addition to the ridiculously bad power play, there was also the continuing struggles of Corey Crawford. After looking largely solid in Phoenix in the first two games, Crawford didn’t look the same once the scene shifted to Chicago. Two hideously soft overtime goals had Quenneville questioning whether to bring in Ray Emery in relief for Game 5, and even though he stuck with Crawford, Corey continued to struggle. His performance raised questions as to whether or not the team’s goaltending situation is settled for next year, and GM Stan Bowman is going to have to address that in the off-season.
There were a few positives that came out of the game. Michael Frolik continued to show that he can be an asset to the team with his play tonight, keeping with the trend of highly aggressive offensive play and an ability to push the tempo in a big way. He may not be scoring many goals, but at the very least he had Phoenix rocking back on their heels.
Finally, there was the aggressiveness of the Chicago forecheck and backcheck that should give fans some hope going forward. Not only was Selke Trophy contender Jonathan Toews doing well in that area, but other players like Patrick Kane and Niklas Hjalmarsson were particularly adept tonight at disrupting Phoenix’s possessions, and if Chicago had won the game, their stellar play would have been a big reason why.
Win Showed the Benefits of Tippett’s System
All season long, it has become increasingly apparent that perhaps more so than even their past two runs into the playoffs, the Phoenix Coyotes had fully bought in to head coach Dave Tippett’s system. They were incredibly aggressive in the hitting department, more than willing to block shots, and in general do the not-so-glamorous things that would enable them to compete with teams laden with offensive talent like the Chicago Blackhawks.
On Monday, the benefits of that system were even more apparent. Yes, Mike Smith really carried the water for the team in the first two periods, but the Coyotes still were blocking shots and forcing the Hawks out wide for less dangerous scoring chances, and their ability to collapse to the middle of the ice really forced the Hawks to be overly aggressive, and that’s where the hidden benefit of Tippett’s system came in to full view.
The Coyotes have thrived all year in the department of capitalizing on mistakes, and they did that to the Hawks on several occasions. When the Hawks committed an ill-advised interference penalty in the second period, it effectively killed their momentum, and Phoenix added to that by adding a power play tally to the board.
In the third period, Gilbert Brule took advantage of a defensive zone miscue by Chicago to rack up an easy tally. Skating past defenseman Nick Leddy, Brule made it into the slot completely untouched, and when Bryan Bickell tried to do a stick-lift on the waiver wire pick up from Edmonton, he missed, and that miscue allowed Phoenix to expand their lead.
Finally, when Hayes committed a boarding infraction and was booted from the game, Phoenix made Chicago pay by adding another power play goal.
Only a team with a supremely talented goaltender can overcome the barrage of shots that Chicago threw at the Coyotes early on, but that same team is more than capable of scoring themselves, and by waiting to do it when the other team makes a mistake, they are able to maximize the psychological impact, and that capitalization doomed Chicago in this series.
Thoughts on the Coyotes Advancing, and the West in General
Obviously, the Coyotes advancing is a huge boost to the city of Phoenix and the team’s fans. For a long time, the team was a doormat and never really that competitive, but over the past few years, they have really built a great organization with Tippett coaching and GM Don Maloney and Assistant GM Brad Treliving pulling the strings behind the scenes. Add in the tremendous coaching job that Sean Burke has done with Mike Smith, and you can easily see why they are at the point they are now.
In addition to that, you have to feel good for Shane Doan, who after so many heartbreaks has finally been on the winning side of the traditional handshake line. Obviously he will not be sitting on his laurels, but after being witness to all the turmoil the team has gone through over the years in the Valley, this has to be doubly satisfying to him.
Finally, there is the craziness that is the NHL playoff picture as a whole. All four teams that advanced in the Western Conference have two things in common: they all have award-worthy goalies (Jonathan Quick in LA, Brian Elliott in St. Louis, Pekka Rinne in Nashville, and Smith in Phoenix), and they all are in the “never won a Cup” club. In fact, of the 11 teams left in the playoffs, seven of them have never won the Stanley Cup. If the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals, and Ottawa Senators all can win their series, there will be only one team left in hockey’s elite eight, the Philadelphia Flyers, who has actually won a Cup championship.
This not only demonstrates the amount of parity in the league, but it is also a refreshing change of pace for a league long dominated by the same small core of teams. While the TV ratings probably won’t show an appreciation by the general public of this incursion of new talent into the hockey realm, rabid fans of the sport will certainly love seeing some new faces under the bright lights of the playoff cauldron.
You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JimNeveau
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.