There is only one team with home-ice advantage in the Western Conference Playoffs that isn’t favored in its quarterfinals matchup, and that’s the third-seeded and Pacific Division Champion Phoenix Coyotes against the No. 6 Chicago Blackhawks. In a way it makes sense, as Chicago did finish with 101 points to the Coyotes’ 97, but a division winner can’t finish lower than No. 3 in the playoff seeding.
Even with triple-digit points, the Hawks finished fourth in the ultra-deep Central Division. The opener of this best-of-seven is Thursday night in Glendale.
These could be the final few games of NHL hockey in the desert.
The Coyotes are still owned by the NHL after they went into bankruptcy a few years ago. There are reportedly three groups who want to buy the team and keep it in Glendale, but in its current state, the club is losing tens of millions of dollars a year (it essentially rents practice time at a community rink because it lost ownership of the rink in bankruptcy) and the Glendale city-owned Jobing.com Arena in which the team plays is a money pit and in debt.
Glendale paid $25 million to the NHL during the 2010-11 season to keep the team in town and pledged another $25 million for the current season, which is expected to be due in May.
There are rumors the Coyotes could be headed anywhere from Kansas City to Seattle to Saskatchewan to Quebec City for next season if a deal isn’t reached in the next month or so. The team was heavily rumored to be moving to Winnipeg when last year’s playoffs rolled around, and players admitted that distracted them as they were swept by Detroit in a complete wipeout.
Blackhawks at Coyotes Betting Story Lines
There is one crucial injury to monitor for this series. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews—the Conn Smythe Trophy winner two seasons ago when the Hawks won the Cup—missed the final 22 games of the regular season with a concussion. However, he has been practicing fully for a while and says he is confident he can play.
Toews skated on the No. 1 line with Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa during Monday's practice and also was on the power-play unit. Toews centered that line with Kane moving to left wing, a position he hasn't played in several years. That seems to be a hint Toews will play, but a final decision may not come until Thursday morning. The decision will be his, as he has been cleared by the doctors and passed the standard concussion tests. Chicago was 13-5-4 without Toews (29 goals, 28 assists in 59 games) in the lineup.
Chicago has better players all over the ice than Phoenix does other than at the most important spot: goaltender.
The Coyotes’ Mike Smith is playing out of his mind right now. Last Tuesday, against the Blue Jackets, he had his third straight shutout, and with 54 saves set an NHL record for the most saves in a shutout performance.
Smith's run of perfection came to an end at 234 minutes, 25 seconds in the following game against the Blues, but he stopped 31 of 32 shots that night and then 23 of 24 against the Wild in the season finale as the Coyotes won the Pacific. He finished fourth in the league with 38 wins—including eight shutouts, one against the Blackhawks—tied for third in the NHL with a .930 save percentage and eighth with a 2.21 goals-against average.
Hawks netminder Corey Crawford (30-17-7, 2.72 GAA, .903 save percentage) had a disappointing season, often splitting time with Ray Emery. But Crawford will be the guy to start the series. Crawford is playing better of late, allowing 11 goals with a .915 save percentage in his past five games.
Phoenix was 2-1-1 this season against Chicago. The Hawks’ only win came in the one game Smith didn’t play against them. Chicago put 35 shots on Jason LaBarbera and got five past him in a 5-2 win back in Oct. 18. Smith held Chicago to a total of four goals in winning the final three meetings between the teams (one in a shootout). Crawford started three of the games for the Hawks, going 1-1 with a 4.28 GAA. He was pulled in one game with Chicago down 3-0, but the Blackhawks tied it only to lose in a shootout—thus, no decision for Crawford.
Something will have to give here as the Coyotes were terrible on the power play this season, ranking 29th with a 13.6 percent success rate. Chicago, meanwhile, was nearly as bad on the penalty kill, ranking 27th in the NHL with a 78.1 kill percentage.
Blackhawks at Coyotes Betting Odds and Key Trends
Chicago is -115 on the series line with Phoenix at -105. For Game 1, the Coyotes are -130 favorites with the total at five (over a -135 favorite). The Hawks were 18-18-5 on the road this season, while Phoenix was 22-13-6. Chicago was 38-44 ATS this year and 42-39-1 on the over/under. Phoenix was a stellar 50-32 ATS and 30-39-13 over/under.
The road team is 4-1 in the past five meetings between these two. Chicago is 7-2 in its past nine games vs. teams with a winning record. The Hawks are 0-4 in their past four games after at least three days rest. The Coyotes are 4-1 in their past five home games.
NHL Picks: Blackhawks at Coyotes Betting Predictions
I think both teams would say this is their most favorable potential first-round matchup. Chicago could have played surging San Jose or Nashville, which is much deeper than Phoenix, and has one of the NHL’s top-three goalies in Pekka Rinne.
Among the teams the Coyotes could have encountered depending on their result in Saturday’s season finale (Vancouver, St. Louis and Detroit), their best regular-season record was against the Hawks.
Assuming Toews is OK to play and doesn’t suffer another concussion, I like Chicago in six games in this series. But it might take a game for him and his linemates to get in sync, so I would go with Phoenix in Game 1.