The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and by the end of it you'll feel like The Walking Dead. Hence, zombie motif!
It was an historic season for the Phoenix Coyotes in two ways. To start, they won the first division title in franchise history, edging out the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. Second, they'll finally have a new first-round opponent after facing the Detroit Red Wings the past two springs.
There will once again be a whiteout in Phoenix; will there be one next season? That's still to be determined. But any off-ice distractions haven't found their way into the Coyotes' room and it's shown of late. They head into the first round on a 5-game winning streak and goaltender Mike Smith recording shutouts in three of those victories.
The Chicago Blackhawks had quite the rollercoaster season. There were high expectations heading into the year, but a midseason swoon, coupled with captain Jonathan Toews being sidelined with a concussion almost derailed things. Head coach Joel Quenneville spent a little time on the hot seat, but the Blackhawks settled in right behind the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division.
Now with spectre of Toews coming back for Game 1, does put Chicago over in this series?
Here is your Coyotes vs. Blackhawks preview, complete with Zombified observations …
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
April 12: Chicago at Phoenix, 10 p.m. ET
April 14: Chicago at Phoenix, 10 p.m. ET
April 17: Phoenix at Chicago, 9 p.m. ET
April 19: Phoenix at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET
April 21: Chicago at Phoenix, 10 p.m. ET
April 23: Phoenix at Chicago, TBA*
April 25: Chicago at Phoenix, TBA*
Phoenix may not have the superstar names but they do have a good balance of scoring up front. Eight different players registered double digit goals, led by Radim Vrbata who had a career season with 35 goals. Their most productive forward was the Wizard, 39-year old Ray Whitney, who netted 24 goals and 77 points. While much of the talk about old guys in the league centered around Teemu Selanne, Whitney put up some of the best numbers of his career. Shane Doan (22 goals) and Lauri Korpikoski (17 goals) round out the Coyotes' top offensive weapons
Defensively up top, Boyd Gordon, Antoine Vermette, Martin Hanzal and Korpikoski will be factors. Gordon led all Phoenix forwards in faceoffs winning 56.8-percent of his draws, with Vermette right behind him at 56.6-percent. Gordon is also one to sacrifice the body, blocking a team-high 86 shots during the regular season, highlighted by his warrior-like effort against Columbus earlier this month.
Raffi Torres plays on the edge as we saw last postseason. If he can not cross that line, Torres will provide that sandpaper needed in the playoffs and chip in offensively after scoring 15 times this season.
The biggest questions surrounding Chicago's forward corps is the health of captain Jonathan Toews. He told reporters on Monday that he expects to play in Game 1, but coming back from a concussion makes pinpointing a return tough. He hasn't played Feb 19, so his return would be a huge boost to the Blackhawks on both sides of the ice.
Outside of Toews, Chicago has plenty in their arsenal to fall back on. Marian Hossa produced 77 points, his most since 2007 when he was with the Atlanta Thrashers. The beautiful Patrick Sharp had his second straight 30-goal season. Patrick Kane wasn't his best offensively this season, but did finish strong potting five goals and 13 points in his final 10 games. Kane does have a knack of stepping up in the postseason with 48 points in 45 career playoff games. Though he won't have his patented playoff mullet and lines in his head this time around.
Like Phoenix, the Blackhawks can provide depth scoring from the likes of Viktor Stalberg (22 goals, 43 points), Mr. Postseason Dave Bolland (19 goals) and rookie Andrew Shaw who put up 23 points in 37 games.
Considering the defensive success the Coyotes had this season, Chicago will need each of their guns to step up.
Phoenix was fifth in the NHL this season in 2.37 goals against per game, a product of the success of head coach Dave Tippett's system, Mike Smith's goaltending and their blueline improving from a year ago.
If Oliver Ekman-Larsson was playing in a flashier zip code, he wouldn't be so under the radar. The 20-year old Swede was phenomenal in his first full season in the NHL posting 13 goals and averaging 22:06 time on-ice a game. Leading the way with OEL on the blueline is Keith Yandle, who had his third consecutive double digit goal season after signing a 5-year, $26.25 million extension last summer.
Balancing the youth is the presence of Rostislav Klesla, Adrian Aucoin, Michal Roszival, and Derek Morris. All four battled injuries during the season, so depth on the blueline will be important for the Coyotes.
Chicago allowed the most goals of any Western Conference playoff team (238) and second most among all 16 teams currently playing. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are as solid a defensive pair as any around the NHL. They've won a gold medal and a Stanley Cup together and they're head coach Joel Quenneville's horses in the back.
In his first full season, Nick Leddy contributed offensively (37 points), but had his moments getting welcomed to the NHL. Johnny Oduya was brought over from Winnipeg at the trade deadline and played five more minutes per game with the Blackhawks than he did with the Jets.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the Coyote most likely to survive is Raffi Torres because all that will be left will be cockroaches, Chris Chelios and gingers.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, the Blackhawk most likely to survive is Andrew Shaw because he has become the new Chuck Norris, at least in Chicago, and nothing has ever stopped Chuck Norris.
Entering this season, Mike Smith never won more than 14 games in a season. Coming to Phoenix, entering Tippett's system and working with Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke, Smith transformed his game and turned himself into a potential Vezina Trophy candidate with 38 wins and eight shutouts. He's been red-hot in the final weeks of the regular season helping Phoenix get into the playoffs. The Coyotes can only hope his play continues into the postseason.
The struggles of Corey Crawford allowed Ray Emery to get his fair share of games in the Chicago net. It'll be Crawford's crease in Game 1. He won eight of his last 11 starts and he'll pose a challenge to Phoenix if he can match his play from a year ago against Vancouver.
The Coyotes zombie climbed out of a grave marked "MANITOBA" and was last seen shuffling down a lonely road, deciding whether to go Northwest or Northeast.
The Blackhawks are that great looking zombie that all the female zombies dig, and that can never remember where he left his brains in the morning
Dave Tippett has a very good chance of being nominated for another Jack Adams Award after a first place season. But he's only coached a team past the first round twice in eight seasons. So far in Phoenix, his charges have been bounced twice in a row in the first round. Is this the year regular season success transfers over to the playoffs?
Two years after winning the Stanley Cup, rumors of Quenneville's job security arose during a slump that saw the Blackhawks win just four of 16 games. The ship was righted and Chicago settled into another 100-point season as the roster got healthier and Crawford's play improved. Quenneville's been successful with majority of this group and knows what buttons to push in order to achieve success in the playoffs.
Even with the big names, Chicago's power play (15.2-percent, 26th) wasn't that much better than Phoenix's (13.6-percent, 29th). Changing things up, Quenneville put Hossa, Sharp, Kane, Toews, Keith, and Seabrook all on one unit during practice this week. That's one way to try and wake up a flaccid power play.
The Coyotes penalty was eighth in the NHL this season with an 85.5-percent kill rate. That's where the likes of Gordon (2:53 SH TOI) and Korpikoski (three SHGs) have shined. For Chicago, Dave Bolland (three SHGs) is always dangerous down a man.
In order to defeat the Coyotes, Chicago needs to take Smith off of his game. He's been the zone of late and the Blackhawks need to find a way into his head. Smith isn't afraid to get physical and fight back when he needs to. Just ask Chris Neil.
In order to defeat the Blackhawks, Phoenix must suffocate them. The Blackhawks sports numerous offensive weapons that will post a challenge to the Coyotes defense. Aside from their top guns, getting secondary scoring down the lineup will help bail out Phoenix should the top guys be shutdown.
Coyotes in 6. The Coyotes were hamstrung the last two postseasons by Ilya Bryzgalov's disappearing act and mental fragility. Mike Smith, he of one career playoff start, has inexperience, but comes off stronger upstairs than Bryz. A bad game or two hasn't thrown off Smith and that'll be the key here. Toews' return could swing the momentum in the series, but it'll still come down to Smith dominating games in order to move the Coyotes along.