We now embark on the greatest playoffs in all of sport, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the prize of which brings the toughest of men to tears and stamps and catapults previously solid National Hockey League (NHL) players to legend status.
I will analyze the playoff series between each of the NHL Central Division teams participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs – the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators, the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. Fortunately for me, the Red Wings and the Predators play each other so that mitigates my overall efforts, which is otherwise known as ‘killing two birds with one stone.’
I begin by analyzing the playoff series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Phoenix Coyotes.
I will also offer my predictions and analysis for the remaining Central Division teams who are participating in the playoffs.
The Phoenix Coyotes defied the pundit’s predictions of a precipitous fall from playoff contention after the departure of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to free agency as well as their impending departure from Phoenix due to their financial struggles over the past several seasons.
Goaltender Mike Smith has flourished under Dave Tippett’s two-way, defense-first system, much like he did when Smith played for Tippett in Dallas. The Coyotes made a furious push to claim the Pacific Division title, thus securing a home-ice advantage during the 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks endured a nine-game winless streak during the late January – mid February timeframe, immediately rebounded and surged into the playoffs with a 16-5-4 stretch from the end of that slump into their regular season finale and registering 101 points in the ever-brutal Central Division.
While the Coyotes flourish with a philosophy of defense and stellar goaltending, having finished 5th in the NHL in the fewest goals allowed (GA), the Blackhawks thrive with a potent offensive attack, having finished tied for 4th in the most goals scored (GF).
So this has all the makings of a classic prolific offense versus stingy defensive battle. Add to that the intrigue as to whether this will be the last time the Coyotes play in Phoenix should they be relocated to another NHL market so this 1st round series could be a memorable one.
I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series. I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out -who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.
Here’s the Rundown:
The Blackhawks possess no shortage of offensive firepower as they finished tied for 4th in the NHL in scoring with 2.88 goals/game. They are lead by a foursome of elite scoring forwards in Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and team captain Jonathan Toews. However, Toews has been out since the end of January with a concussion and his return for Game 1 as well as for the rest of the first-round series is in doubt. But the Blackhawks are more than their ‘Big Four’ of forwards as it’s also loaded with a bevy of complimentary and secondary scoring resources, Viktor Stalberg and shutdown center Dave Bolland to name a few. The Blackhawks also have plenty of offensive firepower from their blueline in Duncan Keith, Nick Leddy and Brent Seabrook all of whom registered more than 25 assists during the regular season.
On the other hand, the Coyotes aren’t exactly considered an offensive juggernaut as the Preds finished 15th in goals/game with 2.51 goals/game. They are lead by the ageless wonder, “The Wizard” Ray Whitney. The 39-year old winger registered 77 points on 53 assists which ranked him 4th in assists in the NHL regular season. After Whitney, their 2nd leading scorer is sniper Radim Vrbata who tallied a career-best 35 goals to go along with 27 assists. After that, Coyotes team captain Shane Doan registered 50 points but that is where the scoring proclivity ends with elite defenseman Keith Yandle scoring 43 points on 32 assists to be followed by Antoine Vermette’s 37 points.
The Coyotes do have adequate secondary scoring albeit not prolific with as many as ten Coyotes scoring at least ten goals during the regular season.
Although the Blackhawks do possess some solid defensive players who can execute a ‘stay at home’ philosophy, the defensive corps greatest strength are their puck-moving capabilities and ability on the man advantage (Power Play), with Keith, Leddy and Seabrook providing much of the offensive support and Niklas Hjalmarsson being adept at moving the puck through all three zones of the ice. The Blackhawks were ranked 19th in the NHL in Goals Allowed (GAA) during the regular season although some of their struggles in goal may have attributed more to their lower-tier ranking.
The Coyotes defensive corps are a stingier bunch with stay at home defensive stalwarts such as Rusty Klesla, Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival providing a great deal of shot-blocking support for Mike Smith. However, it is Dave Tippett’s approach to the game with an ‘all in’ philosophy that has landed the Coyotes in the 5th position in the NHL’s rankings for the fewest goals allowed (GA), having given up a stingy 2.32 goals/game.
As the Coyotes’ defensive prowess is among the NHL’s best, in assessing to which team the advantage goes…
To assess each teams overall special teams play, the differences between both are slight, particularly on the power play. The Coyotes struggled on the man advantage during the regular season, finishing tied for 30th (last) on their power play conversion rate with a paltry 13.5% success rate. They are lead by Radim Vrbata who registered nine Power Play goals during the regular season. The Blackhawks didn’t fare much better, ranking 26th in their power play conversion rate with a 15.2% rate. The Blackhawks’ leader in power play goals is Marian Hossa who also has nine tallies on the man advantage.
Regarding the Penalty Kill, the Coyotes had a distinct advantage, ranking 8th in the NHL with a stout 85.5% kill rate whereas the Blackhawks occupied the bottom levels on the Penalty Kill, ranking 27th in this category with a putrid kill rate of 78.1%.
So, when assessing the overall advantage in Special Teams…
Advantage: Coyotes (slight)
Be it based on the respective team’s philosophies or differences in skill level, the Coyotes appear to possess a huge advantage in goal with Vezina Trophy candidate Mike Smith leading the way. Smith finished 5th in Goals Against Average (GAA) with a 2.21 GAA and posted a Save Percentage (Save%) of .930 which ranked him tied for 3rd in the NHL regular season statistics.
The Blackhawks goaltending duties are manned by the tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, both of whom struggled at various times during the regular season. Crawford posted a GAA of 2.72 and a Save% of .903 ranking him 31st and 35th, respectively out of 43 regular NHL goalies during the regular season. Emery didn’t fare any better, ranking 35th in GAA with a 2.81 GAA and 39th in Save% with a .900 Save% rate.
However, when assessing each team’s goaltending units, this one’s a simple call…
The Coyotes have been saddled with an inability to get past their 1st round series during the past two post-seasons but their biggest area of uncertainty is whether this will be the last time they play in the desert as it’s widely believed they will relocate to a different, presumably Canadian market. The Blackhawks have to guard against complacency as well as their disappointing 1st round exit albeit with a furious comeback attempt after being down to the Vancouver Canucks three games to none.
It will be interesting to see if the Coyotes can shut down the Blackhawks prolific scoring machine as is usually the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs but it will also be interesting to see if the Coyotes can score enough goals to put a scare into the 2010 Stanley Cup champions. Although the Coyotes ranked last in attendance over the past several seasons, there should be sellout or near sellout crowds so it’s possible they could protect their home-ice advantage which they will need to do as the ‘Madhouse on Madison’, the United Center is one of the NHL’s noisiest and most distinct home-ice venues.
While the Coyotes ability to thrive in the face of unusual and daunting obstacles is something to be proud of, their post-season struggles during the past two Stanley Cup playoffs provide a definite cause for concern, going forward. In order for the Coyotes to upset the Blackhawks, they will have to shut down their prolific forward lines as well as post large leads in the opening periods, hoping to frustrate the Blackhawks into playing ‘catch up’. And while the Blackhawks have to bring back their playoff swagger of 2010, they also need to find a solution both defensively and in goal where a hot goaltender and defensive unit can steal a much-needed game or playoff series. Given all those variables, here’s the guess:
Blackhawks in Six Games