Stanley Cup Playoffs: Coyotes Look to Advance Beyond Opening Round

Mark BrownContributor IApril 9, 2012

For the Coyotes to advance, Mike Smith must continue to play stellar hockey.
For the Coyotes to advance, Mike Smith must continue to play stellar hockey.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Now that the Phoenix Coyotes qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year, can they survive?

In losing to Detroit the past two years in the opening round, the Coyotes continued to struggle early in the postseason. Overall, they have advanced from the first round only twice in franchise history.

Since 1982, the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise qualified for the postseason 18 times and has shown little production in the playoffs. Only two times has the franchise advanced, and that was in 1985 and 1987. Never has the franchise eliminated any opening-round opponent since moving to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season.

As Pacific Division champions earning the third spot in the Western Conference, they now take on the Chicago Blackhawks beginning Thursday at Arena. Game 2 is Saturday in the desert, and then the venue shifts to the United Center for Games 3 and 4.

In the two years in which the franchise did advance, Winnipeg defeated Calgary (3-1) in 1985 before losing to Edmonton, 4-0. In 1987, Winnipeg took out Calgary (4-2) and then was swept by the Oilers.

In the franchise's history, the Winnipeg Jets never won a game beyond the first round, and the Phoenix portion took opponents to seven games in the opening round only three times in eight playoff series.

This time, the Coyotes feel they have momentum and enter the Stanley Cup playoffs with a five-game winning streak. In those five games, goaltender Mike Smith has allowed two goals and ended the season with a career-best 38 wins and eight shutouts. Smith concluded with a 38-18-10 record and 2.21 goals against.

In surviving four teams to qualify for the playoffs and then to finish as the Division leader, the Coyotes overcame the unsettling discussion of their future in the Phoenix market to conquer opponents.

“I feel like we’ve been in the playoffs the last few months,” Smith said in audio made available by the Coyotes after clinching the Division title Saturday at Minnesota. “I’m not concerned about the regular season, and that’s behind us. To this point, we’ve accomplished nothing. Now, it’s the playoffs and we have a chance to do some damage.”

For the Coyotes to eliminate Chicago and advance, a few things need to happen.

First, the defense needs to play air-tight hockey.

Down the stretch, Smith recorded three straight shutouts and one goal in each in the Coyotes' final two games. In the final shutout effort, Smith blanked Columbus 2-0, but the Phoenix defense surrendered 54 shots on net. That was an NHL record for most shots faced in a shutout, and if the Smith is to continue to carry the Coyotes, the forwards need to back-check and the defensemen need to clear in front of the net.

Plus, scoring needs to be more balanced.

Right wing Radim Vrbata set a career mark with 35 games, and 39-year-old Ray Whitney (24-53-77) turned his most productive season since 2006-07 (32-51-83 for Carolina). Captain Shane Doan contributed with a 22-goal season (22--28-50), but that was his lowest point total since 2001-02 (20-29-49).

Others, like Gilbert Brule, Daymond Langkow, Lauri Korpiloski, Antoine Vermette, Taylor Pyatt and Martin Hanzel, need to step forward.

In postseason play, it’s a player not expected to contribute who usually makes a difference. For Phoenix, this could be forward Raffi Torres, whose playoff experience with Vancouver last season (23 games, 3-4-7) could be a help.

Plus, the Coyotes' power play, which finished 29th out of 30 NHL teams, needs improvement.

Still, winning its franchise-first division title could be enough to provide Phoenix with a slight edge in momentum.

“What happened this season was a testament to everyone on this team and the collective ability to find ways to win,” Doan said in audio made available by the Coyotes after the division clincher. “Look, Chicago has a great of experience up front but I like our goaltending, and I like our chances.”


Ice Chips

Games 1 and 2 will start at 7 p.m. local time, and slated be the second game of a doubleheader on the NBC SportsNetwork...The leading scorers for both teams had the same amount of points. Whitney finished with 77 to top the Coyotes and Marian Hossa also scored 77 on 29 goals and 48 assists...Forward Patrick Sharp topped the Hawks in goals with 33...

While Smith recorded eight shutouts, Hawks netminder Cory Crawford recorded none. For the season, Crawford finished with a mark of 30-17-7 and a 2.72 goals against...Hawks captain Jonathan Toews is day-to-day with a concussion, and appeared in 58 games. Still, he managed a 29 goal season and chipped in with 28 assists.