After a whirlwind last couple of weeks in the NHL, the dust has finally settled and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is set. The Phoenix Coyotes clinched their first ever Pacific Division title, and the third seed in the Western Conference, when they beat the Minnesota Wild on the last day of the regular season. The Chicago Blackhawks finished the season in fourth place in the Central Division with 100 points, which lands them in the sixth seed. Let's take look at the series ahead.
As previously stated, 2012 marks the first Division title for the Coyotes in franchise history, including their years in Winnipeg. They're making their third consecutive playoff appearance and find themselves a third straight foe from the Central. The Detroit Red Wings bounced the Coyotes in the first round in back-to-back years, including a sweep in 2011. The Coyotes are one of three playoff teams, this season, that have never been to the Stanley Cup Finals. With the home ice advantage, can Phoenix overcome their past failures and advance past the first round?
Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith almost single-handedly carried his team to a playoff berth and division crown. Smith enters the playoffs on the heels of five consecutive victories where he stopped an amazing 190 of 192 shots that he faced (98.95%) including three straight shutouts (234:25 without allowing a goal) and an amazing 54 save performance against Columbus. It's safe to say that Smith is on fire and gives the Coyotes a serious chance at advancing deep into the playoffs. Smith's overall statistics have been impressive and it would be a shame if his name was omitted from Vezina Trophy consideration. Will his hot streak continue, or will Chicago's high-octane offense be able to cool him down?
In general, playoff hockey isn't settled with men in the penalty box and regular season statistics don't always dictate the second season. Last year, the Boston Bruins finished 82 games with an 11% conversion rate on power plays; they won the Stanley Cup. Phoenix converted 13.6% of their power play opportunities this year. Only the Dallas Stars were worse, and by less than a tenth of a percent. Luckily, their penalty killing unit was much better, ranking eighth best in the NHL. Do the Coyotes have what it takes to take advantage of rare Blackhawks' penalties?
The Blackhawks were the only team in the NHL that failed to record a shutout during the regular season and it was their first time doing so since the 1989-90 season as well. Neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery was able to seize the opportunity to be Chicago's top goalie going into the playoffs. Both were given multiple chances throughout the season and just when you thought one guy is going to take it, he faltered. Both were very streaky but ultimately, it looks like the 'Hawks will lean on Crawford for the playoff run. They're hoping he can recapture the magic from last year's first round against Vancouver. Though they lost the series, Crawford's numbers were significantly better than his counterpart, Roberto Luongo; he posted a 2.27 GAA and .927 save percentage. If Chicago plans on getting past the first round, they must get improved goaltending.
He's been referred to as the Blackhawks' heart and soul. He's their captain and unquestioned leader. The 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, Jonathan Toews missed the final 22 games of the regular season with concussion-like symptoms. The 'Hawks were forced to find leadership elsewhere and managed to pull off a 13-5-4 record without Toews. He is expected to make his return for game one, but it's unknown whether or not he will fully be ready for game action. Last year, the Blackhawks had Dave Bolland return from the same injury during round one and had they won that series, he would've likely been Chicago's MVP. Regardless of how many minutes he logs or shifts he sees, Toews' impact will be huge for a team that can't wait to have its captain back.
Similarly to the Coyotes, the Blackhawks power play has been terrible all season and ranks just three spots higher than their first round opponents. Unlike Phoenix, the 'Hawks penalty kill isn't any better, so it appears to be an even matchup if the desert dogs end up with a man advantage; bad vs bad. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they committed the fewest minor penalties in the entire NHL (246) and are generally a disciplined team. Chicago was fifth best in the league at scoring even strength goals (178).
Phoenix won the season series by taking three games from Chicago, including both at the United Center (one via shootout), but the last time they met, the 'Hawks were buried amidst a nine-game losing streak and the roster looks a little different this time around. With the addition of Johnny Oduya, the Blackhawks' blue line has been solidified and their defense has been really limiting their opponent's shots as of late. The series will come down to which goaltender steals a win for his team. I believe Crawford will record Chicago's first shutout of the season en route to a six-game series victory. Blackhawks defeat Coyotes in six games.
The puck drops for game one in Phoenix, Thursday, April 12 at 7:00 pm PST.
Steve Peters is a staff writer for NHLfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_ @nhlfanchat