Regular season series: Coyotes win, 3-1-0
Oct. 18:Blackhawks 5 at Coyotes 2Nov. 29:Coyotes 4 at Blackhawks 1Dec. 5:Coyotes 4 at Blackhawks 3 SOFeb. 11:Blackhawks 0 at Coyotes 3
Key injuries:Chicago -- C Jonathan Toews (concussion, day to day), C Dave Bolland (upper body, day to day), LW Andrew Brunette (foot, expected to play). Phoenix -- None
Snapshot: One team is two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, is stacked with Olympians and boasts an offensive arsenal that ranks among the league's most thrilling. The other is saddled with one of the saddest playoff legacies in the sport, loaded with other team's castoffs, and employs a stifling defense-first, second and third style that renders them pretty tough to watch.
A study in contrasts? Sure. An easy winner to pick?
Not so fast.
The Hawks enter the series as favorites, and not just because they finished four points ahead of Phoenix (which earned home ice for the clash, thanks to that division winner's seed). They are an experienced side buoyed by the likes of Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane -- crafty marksmen capable of executing the spectacular at any moment. The blueline is tough and experienced, led by Duncan Keith, the always underappreciated Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya, perhaps the savviest acquisition made at the trade deadline. They're battle-tested and come to this set playing their most efficient hockey of the season.
Phoenix rode its own season-ending hot streak to a surprising Pacific Division title, the first in franchise history. They counter Chicago's attack with an offense led by the ageless wizard, Ray Whitney, whose 77 points matched the second-best output of his career. But the nearly 40-year-old was one of just three Coyotes to record at least 50 points. More opportunistic than artistic, this team scavenges for goals. They're offensive dumpster divers, and proud of it.
Neither side is particularly deep -- which is why neither is likely to advance past the second round -- but there's a feistiness to Phoenix's third and fourth lines that gives them a slight edge. Give them the nod, too, in terms of special teams. The Coyotes' penalty kill is a top-end unit that should contain a Chicago power play that baffles with its lack of intensity.
But what this series should come down to is a pair of relatively inexperienced goaltenders. Chicago's Corey Crawford was brilliant in his playoff debut last season, outplaying Roberto Luongo, nearly stealing that first round series against the Canucks, and carrying the Hawks to overtime of Game 7 with a spectacular 36-save performance. And he's been tantalizing down the stretch, finishing with an 8-1-2 kick that almost left memories of his uneven season in the dust.
Mike Smith of the Coyotes has even more blank space on his postseason resume -- just three appearances and one win for Tampa Bay in the 2011 Eastern Conference Final -- but his regular season hints at the edge he might provide. The unheralded 30-year-old picked up right where Ilya Bryzgalov left off, as he backstopped the league's fifth-ranked defense with enviable consistency -- only three times all season did Smith lose consecutive games in regulation. With a playoff berth on the line, he authored his finest work, running up a shutout streak of more than 230 minutes and allowing just two goals during his last five starts as he willed the Yotes to the Pacific title. If Phoenix hopes to win, he has to be that kind of spectacular.
Spotlight's on: Jonathan Toews. The Toews-less Hawks went 11-2-4 over the final five weeks of the season, so yeah, they're capable of ringing up a few wins without their captain. And now, word is that he'll be back soon, perhaps even for the series opener. But that seems a little hopeful, doesn't it? Given that he didn't try to skate off some of that rust in the final game or two suggests he's still in that grey area.
No doubt a healthy Toews can be a tide turner, and the fact that he skated on the top line in practice on Monday is promising. But the lingering effects of concussion, like the one that has sidelined him since Feb. 19, are wildly unpredictable. When he does return, he's likely to be a shadow of himself for at least a couple of games. That delay might be more than the Hawks can afford.
X-Factor for the Coyotes: The power play. Ranking second-to-last in the league with the extra man? When you look at the talent on the first unit -- Whitney, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata up front, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Shane Doan manning the points -- well, it's not exactly an embarrassment of riches, is it? And they're not getting much help from the bench. Coach Dave Tippett may have carried a reputation as a power play savant when he was an assistant coach with the Kings a decade ago, but that magic touch seems to have stayed behind in L.A.
Still, all it takes is two or three goals for a unit to make a difference in a short series, and the hard-luck Coyotes may have found their perfect foil in the Hawks. Chicago doesn't take many penalties (only the Sharks served fewer during the regular season), but when they go to the box, their 27th ranked PK can be very generous.
Both sides rank in the top-10 with their five-on-five play, so special teams will be key. Phoenix needs to make some noise here to tilt the balance their way.
X-Factor for the Blackhawks: Viktor Stalberg. A loose puck. A lucky bounce. A missed read. With scoring opportunities at a premium in the tight-checking postseason, the players most likely to capitalize when the window opens even slightly are those with the wheels. And there aren't many out there who can match the sheer giddyup that Stalberg brings to a lineup.
The second-year forward was handed a top-six slot when Toews went down, and he's used those crazy legs, a nicely developing set of mitts, and a bit of moxie to develop into a legitimate scoring threat. Playing alongside Marcus Kruger and Patrick Sharp, he tallied three goals in the final four games to finish the season with 22.
Although his assignment may change when the captain returns, Stalberg could play the role of assassin even with limited minutes. Watch for him to make his mark late in matches, especially any that go into overtime. When other legs are heavy, he could use his to steal a game...and maybe even turn the series.
The Pick: Coyotes in seven