It’s no easier to make a prediction going into tonight’s game one matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Phoenix Coyotes than for any of the other series. Playoff predictions are hard to make in general, and this might be the most difficult year to make them.
And what to make of the dynamics of this Midwest vs. Southwest series? The Blackhawks couldn’t be coming from a more different place than the ‘Yotes. Unlike traditional favourite/underdog matchups and made-in-heaven rivalries like Pittsburgh Penguins/ Philadelphia Flyers, this series pits a team that has improved every year with everything to prove in the Coyotes against the Cup Champion from two years ago that’s been trying to reclaim its elite status ever since.
Conventional wisdom has already been tossed to the wind in these playoffs; the usually heavyweight Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks’ lacklustre losses from last night prove that. Last column, I explained why I think the Coyotes will make the leap from also-rans to competitors. That kind of statement cannot be made without a good look at their 1st opponent.
As of 10 p.m. EST tonight anything can happen, but here’s some pre-series reconnaissance. If I’m the Coyotes’ coaching staff I want to know just who these Blackhawks are. Let’s start with some comparisons:
Average Age 28.5
Goal Differential +12
Top Scorer Ray Whitney, 77 pts
Special Teams PK, 8th, PP, 29th
Average Age 27.5
Goal Differential +10
Top Scorer Marian Hossa, 77 pts
Special Teams PK, 24th, PP 28th
Season Series – 2-1-1 Coyotes
For argument’s sake, predicting the Coyotes will win the series is sound based on defence depth, goaltending, and the only decent special teams unit between the two squads.
But since we know these regular season numbers are of zero importance when the puck drops (Exhibit A – Bruins Cup 2011 win with non-existent power-play), let’s take a closer look at the journey of the ‘Yotes opponent. Fans and players both know know what utterly dominant forces Chicago players Kane, Toews, Keith and Hossa can turn into. With this in mind, even with the Coyotes being predicted by quite a few hockey minds to take it, we would be remiss not to consider Chicago’s star power and experience. I don’t think anyone will be surprised if they turn on the jets and win, but I’m sticking to my guns. After last years forgettable sweeping by the Detroit Red Wings, the Coyotes have nowhere to go but up. The much more varied recent playoff history of the Blackhawks, on the other hand, takes their edge off.
The Blackhawks had the sourest of finishes last year. In a season that for the third straight playoffs tied their fate to the rival they had owned up until then, the Vancouver Canucks, an epic comeback equalled a 1st round exit. We remember that Vancouver ended up in the final; lost already is the memorable and mesmerizing first round these teams played. Vancouver was up 3-0 in the series, Chicago battled back to tie it 3-3 (only the seventh time that happened in NHL history), Vancouver was up 2-1 in Game 7, Jonathan Toews tied it shorthanded with less than 2 minutes left, and Alex Burrows’ OT winner bailed out the ‘Nucks all the way to the final. There remains little doubt who would have ended up there for the second straight time if that last OT went the other way.
This 2011-2012 Chicago team would really like to regain its pre-2011 form. But what was lost in the conversation last year was how hard battling back was for the Hawks. This was not the Chicago squad, one of the best in recent history, who cruised to a Stanley Cup victory in 2009-2010. And it still isn’t this year. Gone from the list on Lord Stanley’s mug are no less than Ladd, Byfuglien, Campbell, Eager, Niemi, Versteeg, Brouwer, Burish, and Boynton. That was way too much firepower to handle on top of their regular stars the when they won, and they haven’t been nearly as dominant without it.
Since those players all left, Chicago is not the nightmare it was to play against. Nick Leddy and Andrew Shaw are notable young players who are developing nicely in Joel Quenneville’s outfit, but this is a diminished squad offensively. Couple that with uncertainty in goal with mixed-results Corey Crawford being favoured these days over journeyman Ray Emery (despite Emery stepping in and playing quite well on several occasions this year), and I declare this team beatable, if the Coyotes have will and the guts to pounce on them. Star forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have both clocked in with slightly sub-par years, but the captain is coming back from the concussion he has been battling for game 1. That’s a strike against Pheonix no matter how you slice it.
Can the ‘Yotes take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity? We shall see. After tonight, the discussion moves from the speculative to the analytical.