As the NHL approaches its annual playoff season—a postseason unlike any other in sports because of its grueling style—there are many surprising teams who have climbed up the rankings and now formidably challenge for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
One of those teams is the up-and-coming Phoenix Coyotes.
The Coyotes are the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, and they didn’t get there by accident. Behind former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix amassed a 50-25-7 record this season. In doing so, the team attained more points than the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche, and their first-round opponent, the Detroit Red Wings.
Tippett has done a great job resurrecting the team from the annals of the former Wayne Gretzky regime. Phoenix is a scrappy young bunch which prides itself on playing tough defense and depending a lot on its goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov.
Speaking of Bryzgalov, he has been magnificent this season, attaining a 2.29 goals-against-average and a .920 save percentage. He will be quite busy when this series opens Wednesday night.
That is because the Coyotes are playing the hottest team in the NHL in the Red Wings.
Since returning nearly every starting player from injuries—unlike a season ago, in which they still made the Stanley Cup Finals—the Wings have been a red hot 16-3 since the Olympic games in Vancouver.
After scrounging up a victory on the road at Chicago in the final game of the year to move in as the No. 5 seed in the West, the Wings show that they continue to defy the odds and are ready to make another deep run when it matters most.
Almost as impressive is the way Detroit fought and battled in a season when some said they wouldn’t even make the playoffs, the Red Wings ended up with 102 points—an NHL-record 10th straight season with at least 100 points. It is an astounding achievement for an organization many consider to be not just the best in the NHL, but among the top in all of professional sports.
And it’s almost like a slap in the face for the Coyotes to have to play Detroit in the first round. I’m sure they would have gladly taken another team in the first round, such as the young Kings or Avalanche squads. They have the toughest test to win, and that’s just to get out of the opening round.
Phoenix will win the series only if they hold down Detroit’s big guns, like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan “the Mule” Franzen. It is a tall task to ask as the Wings have so many great players at nearly every position. Bryzgalov will have to play out of his mind and then some to give his monotonous offense a chance to score when it counts.
But when it comes down to it, I cannot and will not bet against the Red Wings.
Detroit is so talented, so much more experienced, so well-coached that I don’t see how Mike Babcock—a coach who won Olympic gold in the most pressure-packed games of all time—will not have his guys ready to pounce.
Phoenix was a great story and has a bright future ahead of it. Every team has to lose to know how to win, and the Coyotes will find that out soon enough.
Prediction: Red Wings in six