NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: Chicago-Phoenix

The Phoenix Coyotes were the survivor of a wild four-team race in the Pacific Division and earned the #3 seed in the Western Conference. The Chicago Blackhawks are seeded 6th. Like their 6-seed counterpart in the East, the New Jersey Devils, Chicago enters this series with a better record than Phoenix and is in the favorite’s role. TheSportsNotebook previews the Chicago-Phoenix series…

If this series were about frontline talent between the nets then Chicago would sweep and win each game in a blowout. The Blackhawks are loaded with players who can move the puck and light the lamp. The team operates best when it moves leftward, the wing that runs out Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, an assault team that ensures a top scorer is on every line. The defenseman, led by Brent Seabrook are good passers from the back end, and it adds up to an offense that ranks sixth in the league in goals. And it could get better—the team has been missing center Jonathan Toews to a concussion, but Toews is practicing and listed as a probable for Thursday’s series opener in the desert. The center is one of the best puck distributors in the league and an able scorer himself.

Phoenix is thin on offense by any measure, ranking 18th in goals scored. Ray Whitney and Shane Doan are respectable at the forward spots, while Radim Vrbata is the closest the Coyotes have to a genuine offensive threat. But when put side-by-side against Chicago’s star power, Phoenix’s light goes dim quickly.

But playoff hockey isn’t always about the players between the nets, it’s about the ones in the net and Phoenix has an edge here every bit as big as Chicago’s among the starting five. Mike Smith’s 93 percent save rate is tied with New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. And that’s in spite of a woeful defense in Phoenix that has left Smith ruthlessly exposed. Only two defenses in the league allow their goalies to be hammered with more shots, and Smith just keeps turning them back. That a team that poor in overall defense can be 5th in the NHL in goals allowed speaks volumes to how good Smith is, and it will be a crime if he doesn’t win the Hart Trophy, given to the league MVP.

Chicago is almost the complete opposite. Whether you spell goalie “Corey Crawford” or “Ray Emery”, the results haven’t been appealing to Blackhawks fans. Chicago’s team defense—led by Seabrook, trade deadline acquisition Johnny Oduya and Duncan Keith, is a good group and ranks in the top third of the league in shots allowed. But the team is in the bottom third in goals allowed. Any guess where we might put the blame?

Phoenix has a couple other edges going for them besides the goaltending. They actually play better in the 5-on-5 than does Chicago. That’s no small edge given that the Blackhawks are lousy on the power play, whether it’s cashing in their own or killing someone else’s. Phoenix, thanks to Smith, is at least sound on the penalty kill.

The Coyotes are a one-man team. I don’t deny that for an instant. They are not better than Chicago for the long haul because of it, I don’t deny that either and the just-completed 82-game body of work backs it up. But in the NHL playoffs, an advantage this sizeable in the net is too much to pass up. I think Smith puts Phoenix on his back and carries them to the second round.