The NHL Playoffs have arrived. The CS staff is pleased to present you with a preview , a couple of keys to the series, and Sean Keenan’s prediction of the winner and MVP of each series.
The third seeded Phoenix Coyotes have been HOT lately. They won 7-10 down the stretch to take control of the Pacific Division when a lot of people (Katey Berman and myself included) counted them out. they finished 42-27-13 for a total of 97 points, and did so primarily on the back of Mike Smith who has been *Boston Accent* wicked good for the last 2+ months of the season. The Yotes are led by their aging, do it all captain Shane Doan, who finished the season with 50 points and was the target of trade talks before the season even started. Radim Vrbata leads the way in the goal scoring department, finishing with 35, while Ray Whitney has been the one setting him up, finishing the season with 53 assists.
The Blackhawks are the model of inconsistency this season. They were the front runners for the Presidents trophy on January 1st, then went through hell after the All Star Break with a 9 game losing streak. When they finally surfaced from their nose dive they had lost all of the cushion they had built up and then some, were in danger of falling out of the playoffs all together, and had lost Jonathan Toews to a concussion for an undisclosed amount of time. This was with about 20 games left in the season. That when things took an unexpected turn: The Blackhawks got really good again. The last 19 games of the season saw the Hawks net a total of 26 points in the standings, and gaining a point in 16 of the 19 games played. They did this on the stregnth of Patrick Kane really playing well down the stretch, a second line of Marcus Kruger, Patrick Sharp, and Viktor Stalberg playing on fire, and a renewed sense of defensive responsibility. Now the playoffs start and the Hawks get all world center and captain Toews back.
- Can Mike Smith steal a playoff series?
The Coyotes have filled the void created by Ilya Bryzgala’s departure to Philly with Mike Smith. The HUGE (6’4″) goalie has performed up to his size and then some this season. The Blackhawks outmatch Phoenix in just about every category, but there is no doubt that with Smith in net, it is the Coyotes who have the advantage this position. Mike Smith is the x factor, the catalyst for Phoenix’s Cup aspirations, and whatever other cliche you can think of.
- Can Corey Crawford come up with big saves when his team needs him most?
The sophomore has had that slump that experts like to predict happens in the career of most NHL Goaltenders. Corey Crawford has some of the worst numbers for a starter in the entire NHL this season, but he has come on strong of late, or at least, strong enough to reclaim the starters job for the postseason.
2. Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata v. Toews and Kane.
- With the Coyotes locking up the 3rd seed in the West, the first home game is in Phoenix, which means Yotes head coach Dave Tippet has the luxury of the first change. For you casual hockey fans out there, this is important because it mean the home team is able to play the match-ups and put their lines on the ice against the players they want to face. In the last couple of days news has broken that Tippet is planning on matching up his top line talent of Whitney and Vrbata against Toews, Kane, and Hossa, who are playing on the top line for the Hawks. If the Yotes are able to win this matchup it will go a very long way toward a series win.
3. Net Presence.
- Finding a consistant net presence has been a difficult thing for the Blackhawks since Dustin Byfuglien left town after the Cup run. Unfortunately, Mike Smith is unbeatable if he sees the puck coming, so its going to come down to Toews, Bickell, Shaw, and Kruger to blind him and score some dirty goals.
4. Secondary scoring.
- The Phoenix Coyotes are never going to be mistaken for an offensive powerhouse, but they do have good scoring depth. They are not as top heavy as most of the teams in the NHL are, but they aren’t exactly dripping with 20 goal scorers either.
- Chicago had contributions in unexpected places this year, with Viktor Stalberg potting 20+, and rookie Andrew Shaw netting 13 in less than 40 games. The contributions will have to continue, because the Hawks are going to have to dominate offensive play if they plan on beating Mike Smith.
Prediction: Hawks in 6.
MVP: Patrick Kane