Chicago Blackhawks: 1st-Round Matchup vs Phoenix; Emery Re-Signed

Jim WeihofenCorrespondent IApril 11, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 16: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates his penalty shot goal against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on February 16, 2012 in New York City. The Blackhawks defeated the Rangers 4-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Blackhawks will start the first round of the playoffs in Phoenix against the Coyotes, marking the Hawks' fourth straight playoff appearance.

The major boost to the team will be the return of team captain—and arguably best player—Jonathan Toews. The excitement between Toews and the Hawks is mutual, as he is expected to rejoin the team for Game 1 of the playoffs.

Toews' return, coupled with the late-season success of the Hawks' second line (consisting of Patrick Sharp, Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg), will push Patrick Kane onto Toews's wing, with third superstar Marian Hossa completing the Hawks' first line.

On defense, the five-game suspension of Duncan Keith will likely help the Hawks, as that's five games that head coach Joel Quenneville simply couldn't ask him to skate 25-30 minutes during. He'll likely slide back onto the star pairing with Brent Seabrook, pushing Niklas Hjalmarsson down to the third pairing with either Sean O'Donnell or rookie Dylan Olsen.

In net, it will likely be Corey Crawford, who will seek to regain some of his 2011 playoff magic.

Opposing the Hawks will be a Coyotes team that plays the exact style that has given the Hawks fits since the post-championship dismantling. Pheonix plays a defensive-minded game and takes away the neutral zone.

The Coyotes offer a nice mix of youth and veteran leadership, including a couple of former Blackhawks in winger Radim Vrbata and defenseman Adrian Aucoin. Thirty-nine-year-old winger Ray Whitney won the Stanley Cup with Carolina back in 2006, so he'll be turned to as a veteran leader.

Ray Emery will return for another season as the Hawks' back-up goalie.
Ray Emery will return for another season as the Hawks' back-up goalie.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

While the Coyotes skaters will give a fair challenge to the Hawks on defense and in net, the true challenge will be in net, where they'll face Mike Smith, who is having a season worthy of receiving the Vezina Trophy. He's also ridiculously hot entering the postseason: 5-0-0, .990 save percentage, 0.40 GAA in his last five games played.

In his first couple of seasons in the NHL as Marty Turco's backup in Dallas, Smith posted good numbers, with a GAA in the mid-two's and a save percentage over .900. In the middle of the 2007-08 season, Smith was part of the trade package that sent star center Brad Richards from Tampa Bay to Dallas.

Once in Tampa Bay, Smith saw back-and-forth results, sometimes having a good game, sometimes negative. While he was always known as a good puck handler, inconsistency plagued him to the point of being replaced with 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson last season.

Signing a two-year, $4 million contract in Phoenix, Smith flourished to a 38-18-10 record, posting a .930 save percentage and 2.21 GAA in 67 games for Phoenix this season.

Lost amongst all the talk of playoff matchups was the news that the Blackhawks had re-signed goalie Ray Emery to a one-year, $1.15 million contract. Emery was unbeatable in regulation in the United Center, posting a 10-0-3 record at home for the Hawks this season.

The numbers on the deal aren't bad, as the cap hit is small enough on a one-year deal that Emery can be cut should he struggle. However, with Tomas Vokoun as the likely No. 1 goalie on the free-agent market this coming offseason, the move isn't bad by any means.

Emery has carried a team on his back in the postseason before, and should Crawford struggle early, The Razor and his newly-signed deal will have to step up if the Blackhawks want a parade in June.