Storyline: The league’s best yearlong story heads back to the playoffs in hopes of a whiteout; Too bad they’ll have to go through a motivated Hockeytown to do it.
Offense: Call them whatever you want, just don’t call it pretty. The Phoenix Coyotes scored less than many of the powerhouses in the same point range, yet that shouldn’t be surprising for a Dave Tippett-coached team.
Criticized all season long for abusing the shootout, the Yotes roll three lines deep with players filling key roles rather than scoring plentiful goals. Radim Vrbata has played his best hockey in the Valley of the Sun, putting up another 20-goal season in Glendale, and Lee Stempniak’s Western Conference comeback gives some consistency to the score sheet. With Shane Doan, Wojtek Wolski, and Matthew Lombardi keeping to the script, it isn’t as if the team misses a Tkachuk-esque scorer.
Detroit may be traditionally associated with goals, but the Red Wings weren’t much better when it came to finding the back of the net this season. After a decade at the top, Detroit suffered the plague in regards to injury but now has the pieces in place for another big playoff run.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are in the twilight of their respective primes, and Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi may be long past the due date. In total, the comparison draws near equal if you don’t factor in The Mule, who played better than ever after missing nearly three quarters of the season.
Johan Franzen’s playoff stock is the highest of any player in the NHL, and the Coyotes know it. Advantage: Detroit.
Defense: The Coyotes pulled no punches at the trade deadline, strengthening their blueline as much as their forwards in anticipation for the playoff push.
Bringing back Derek Morris to play with Ed Jovanovski put their hearts in the right place, while acquiring diamond in the rough Mathieu Schneider put their heads in the right place. Phoenix’s best d-man? Adrian Aucoin, who is experiencing the best swing of his career after leading the team in ice time alongside Zbynek Michalek.
Of course, when you talk about Detroit’s defensive situation, you look no further than the old men: Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom. Rafalski dazzled for Team U.S.A. in the Olympics, and while Lidstrom’s mentions at the top of the defensive ladder have softened, his play in the lineup certainly hasn’t.
The Red Wings would legitimately be the better team if they could only keep Niklas Kronwall and Andreas Lilja on the roster at the same time. Advantage: Push.
Goaltending: People often forget that Ilya Bryzgalov played an important role in Anaheim’s latent Cup success when he carried the Ducks through the first round before J-S Giguere stepped back into the starter’s role.
Bryzgalov already made himself a name when he righted the ship in Phoenix and gave fledgling fans hope for a fledgling franchise. A stronger coach and stronger team allowed him to win 42 games this year, an obvious career high.
His opponent as of press time is Jimmy Howard, the unlikely starter in place of a Hockeytown Hero. Howard’s 37 wins could quickly be erased if he falters in the playoffs, knowing the kind of reputation his new backup, Chris Osgood, carries in with him.
But given how hot the Red Wings have been in the last two months, a change of goalie may be the cataclysmic change of pace that destroys a dynasty. Advantage: Phoenix.
Key Players: Shane Doan’s one goal and four assists in four outings with Detroit this season standout in a crowded room for the Coyotes, not to mention he is the captain. Meanwhile, Pavel Datsyuk continued to impress with two goals and four assists over the same time.
History: The Red Wings will be looking to go three for three in playoff series against the Coyotes this year. Phoenix lost once as the Jets just two years before a similar oust in the Quarterfinals as the Coyotes. They split the season series at two games each.
Outcome: The Coyotes are reminiscent of Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” in that you want them to succeed, but you feel as if their old habits will result in a bittersweet finale. Red Wings in six.