At the beginning of this season, if someone asked you who would win a playoff series between the Detroit Red Wings and Phoenix Coyotes, you'd likely laugh at the idea that Phoenix would have been able to squeak in to an eighth-seed position.
Because, back then, the only way one could fathom these teams meeting in the playoffs would be as a No. 1 vs. No. 8 match-up.
Hmm, what do they say happens when we assume?
Despite all odds, the Phoenix Coyotes have not only made the playoffs, but capped off the best season in their history (including when they were the Winnipeg Jets) by securing 107 points and a No. 4 playoff seed.
What Dave Tippett (who, by the way, represents one of the worst firings of an NHL coach in recent memory; how'd that work out for you, Dallas?) has been able to do with this team, an odd mix of over-the-hill veterans and wide-eyed youngsters, should more than guarantee him Coach of the Year honors.
Aside from coaching, Phoenix has benefited from perhaps the most consistent and solid goaltending performance of the year from Ilya Bryzgalov. The Russian net-minder started the year by imitating a brick wall on most nights and, 69 games later, still doesn't seem to have many cracks in that exterior.
Devoid of any true snipers, Phoenix decided early on their strategy for winning would be to play defense first, last and always. As a result, the Coyotes finished the season as the third-best defensive team in the league.
Their relentless work in the hard areas of the ice and commitment to bottling up the neutral zone is a recipe some teams (re: 2006 Edmonton Oilers) have used to startling success in the playoffs.
So, they have superior coaching, excellent goaltending and a team-wide commitment to defensive hockey—all the ingredients one needs for a long Stanley Cup run, right?
Despite the Coyotes' strengths, when it comes to playoff opponents, they drew a painfully short straw in the Detroit Red Wings.
In years past, the Red Wings would be favored to win simply because they're the Red Wings. This year, however, it's a very different story in Motown.
Out of a playoff spot as late as February, the Red Wings used the Olympic Break to their advantage, and, emerging healthy, determined and disciplined, they promptly went on a 16-3-2 tear to end the season.
The significance of this run is that 11 of their 16 wins came by one-goal decisions. This reveals a team capable of playing methodical hockey with patience enough to wear down the opposition and capitalize on mistakes in close games in time to make them fatal.
Forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk appear to have shaken off whatever slump they've suffered through much of the year and, with a healthy Andreas Lilja back in the lineup (and who thought the Wings would miss him as much as they did), Detroit once again features one of the most solid defensive corps in the league.
The one question mark for Detroit lies in goal, with rookie Jimmy Howard. Having not played a second of NHL playoff hockey, Howard is the easy pick for why the Wings might lose this round.
However, like most things, an easy pick is rarely the right one, and this case is no exception.
Some have pointed to 2009 Calder winner, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason, as a reason to not get too excited about a rookie goalie, who has just completed a marvelous regular season, starting for you in the playoffs.
Despite his brilliance during the season, Mason didn't win a game against Detroit in the playoffs last season and his team's first trip past game 82 was over before it began.
Couldn't the same thing happen to Jimmy Howard and Detroit?
No. And here's why.
It's true, Howard has zero playoff experience; however, the team in front of him has more experience than any other team in the league.
Unlike Mason and the Blue Jackets last year, Howard is not going into the playoffs a virgin net-minder for a virgin playoff team.
The support Howard has around him is tremendous, and the fact that he's been maturing in the AHL for the past five years, while no substitute for playoff experience, should reveal that he's simply not a young, hot-shot goalie who's too dumb to know he shouldn't be playing as well as he is.
Howard has been preparing for this opportunity for five years.
Additionally, and this may be viewed as a slight against Howard but is really anything but, it's not like he's playing at an unsustainable pace.
Howard only has three shutouts this season and though his goals-against average and save percentage are extremely good, it's not as if he's the hands-down 2010 Vezina winner.
Howard is providing the Red Wings with what they've always needed to be successful in the playoffs: good goal-tending.
Not amazing goal-tending, but put it this way: if his team could spot him an average of three goals per game throughout the playoffs, could the Wings win with him in net?
You bet they could.
The same cannot be said for Phoenix.
In the end, the Wings are riding a great wave of success into the playoffs and have collectively forgotten more about winning than most teams, and certainly Phoenix, will ever know.
Phoenix will make it interesting, but the Wings will win this series inside six games.
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