Within the Phoenix Coyotes organization, there is a huge difference between the past two playoff seasons, and the challenge of this post-season.
In the previous two playoff years, the Coyotes faced the Detroit Red Wings and the Wings experience and acumen were difficult for Phoenix to overcome.
Now, the Coyotes enter the 2012 playoff season with a push, enthusiasm and elan.
First, they earned the third seed in the Western Conference by winning the Pacific Division, and from that accomplishment, feel a surge of confidence. Also, the Red Wings are not a first-round opponent, and by engaging the Chicago Blackhawks this time around, the Coyotes believe they stand a better chance of advancing past this Conference Division Semi-final round.
To do so, goalie Mike Smith will likely carry his team.
Signed as a free agent prior to the season, Smith was given an opportunity to man the Phoenix net, and responded with a stellar season. He was especially strong in February when he went undefeated and emerged as the catalyst in assisting the Coyotes to end the regular season on a five-game winning streak.
Now, he confronts the Blackhawks, a team just two seasons removed from winning the Stanley Cup and possessing the kind of talent capable of dominating the opposition.
“Clearly, the Hawks have dynamic players with great skill levels,” Smith said after practice Wednesday. “This will be a great test for us. You have to have good goaltending to move on in the playoffs and I’ll do my best to help us.”
Smith finished the season with a mark of 38-18-10, a career-high eight shutouts and a 2.21 goals against. He was particularly spectacular in stopping 54 Columbus shots in a 2-0 win at home on April 3. Smith was 9-1-3 in his last 13 regular season games and suffered his last loss in regulation time on March 15.
Now, he faces snipers, opportunists and a Chicago resurgence.
That’s because captain Jonathan Toews is expected to return to the lineup for the first time since February 19. Out with concussion-like symptoms, Toews skated in practice Wednesday, and his decision to play in Game One will be a game-time evaluation.
Still, he managed to finish third on the team in scoring with 23-43 for 66 points, and that was behind Marian Hossa (29-48, 77) and Patrick Sharp (33-36, 69). Sharp was also a plus-28, and regarded as a strong penalty killer.
“For us to beat them, we need to play with the puck,” said Phoenix captain Shane Doan after Wednesday’s practice. “We cannot chase the puck. If we give them the puck, it will be a long night. They are very talented, so we need to get in their way, bump and disrupt their game.”
The return of Toews represents an unique challenge for Phoenix.
“First, we need to recognize their firepower,” said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett after practice Wednesday. “With Toews back, that’s the identity of their team. They have top forwards and we’ll have to read and react.”
The Coyotes have never advanced past the first round since relocating to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season. When they were the Winnipeg Jets, they advanced out of the first round only twice in a combined 18 years qualifying for post-season play.
The Coyotes appreciate having home ice in this series, but need to take advantage.
“In the playoffs, the team which scores first usually wins,” Tippett added. “At the start of the series, I’m sure there will be nervous tension for both teams. We need to control that energy and make it work for us.”
SOME FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Special teams could make a difference.
On the power play, the Coyotes finished 29th of the NHL’s 30 teams in efficiency with the man advantage. On killing penalties, the Hawks were one of the worst teams and finished 27th overall.
As well, the plus-minus factor may also dictate eventual outcomes of games.
Individually, Sharp led the Hawks in this category and defenseman Brent Seabrook was a plus-21. Seabrook’s partner on the blue line, Duncan Keith, tied for third on the Hawks in assists with 36. Plus, Seabrook and Duncan combined scored 16 goals and assisted on 61 others.
The Coyotes defensive pair of Keith Yandle and Derek Morris need to step up their defensive game. In late season games, Yandle was guilty of giving the puck away which resulted in goals. For the year, he was only a plus-5 while Morris was a minus-12, tops on the team.
If the defense abandons Smith, this could be a short series.
Between the Pipes
If Smith had a strong season, Hawks net minder Cory Crawford needs to catch up. While Smith recorded eight shutouts, Crawford turned in none and back-up Ray Emery also recorded no shutouts.
Crawford finished with a record of 30-17-7 and a 2.72 goal against.
When the Hawks won the Cup two years ago, goal tender Antti Niemi carried the team. Crawford is not considered among the NHL’s elite and will have to step up his game to keep the Hawks in the series.
Coming into the Playoffs
Among teams which qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Hawks and Coyotes are the two hottest teams.
Combined, they are 13-2-5 over the final 10 games. However, Chicago has not won in regulation time since March 20.
Though they won the Pacific Division, the Coyotes finished with a record of 42-26-11, 97 standing points and the third seed in the Conference. Chicago ended with a mark of 45-26-11, 101 points and the sixth seed.
Since starting play in the NHL for the 1926-27 season, the Hawks have won the Stanley Cup four times. In post-season play, the best the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise has accomplished was to advance from the first round twice (1985, 1987 both as the Winnipeg Jets).
EDITOR’S NOTE - Quotes in this story were made available through audio supplied by the Phoenix Coyotes following practice, April 11, 2012.