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April 9, 2012
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

by Robert Vollman


Two exceptionally well-coached teams face off in the postseason for the first time, a match-up that pits a classic puck possession team against a group of overachievers playing in front of white-hot goaltending. Both teams would see a first-round exit as a tremendous disappointment, but someone has to go home early.

Even Strength

The Chicago Blackhawks are a classic puck possession team, finishing in the top five for the fourth straight season. The Phoenix Coyotes are equally consistent, but have settled around the breakeven mark instead.

A strong believer in puck possession (or big names) will strongly favor the Chicago Blackhawks but almost every other factor, especially goaltending, is tilted the other way.

Phoenix Offense vs. Chicago Defense

Phoenix Coyotes Offense: -7.2 GVT (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks Defense: +3.6 (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks Goaltending: -21.9 (Rank: 28th in NHL)
Total: Phoenix Coyotes, +19.6 GVT

Phoenix's leading scorer is 39-year-old Ray Whitney, whose 77 points were his second-highest total ever. This will be his eighth trip to the postseason, on five different teams, which featured a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06. Raffi Torres was on the wrong end of that series, the first of two Stanley Cup appearances when you include last year's loss with the Vancouver Canucks. Shrewd trade deadline pick-up Antoine Vermette made an appearance in the finals himself with the Ottawa Senators in 2006-07, so there's plenty of deep playoff run experience in the lineup.

On the flip side, if they lose, it will be Adrian Aucoin's 10th playoff appearance without seeing the second round, and the ninth for poor Shane Doan. Phoenix is the league's second-oldest team, with half their current lineup already in their thirties.

One of Chicago's strengths is its defense, featuring a Dave Bolland who has certainly proven himself one of the league's best shutdown guys. He'll need some help from players like Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw to get the Hawks out of the first round, not to mention some much more consistent play on the blue line than they had in the regular season.

Chicago's legendary top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is solid enough, but their second unit of Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy struggled, as did various attempts at third line combinations. Hopefully, the recently-acquired Johnny Oduya will continue to have a solidifying effect on the bottom four.

The real lingering weakness for the Hawks is in goal. Neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery had strong seasons, but Crawford is currently hot. Last year, his save percentage was .927 in their tough seven-game loss to Vancouver, whom they outscored 22-16—a level of play that would almost certainly be enough to secure the victory this year.

Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes

Chicago Offense vs. Phoenix Defense

Chicago Blackhawks Offense: +22.8 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Defense: -3.5 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Goaltending: +25.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, +1.3 GVT

Chicago has an abundance of offense, including five 20-goal scorers with Dave Bolland just a single goal shy of making it six, and an easy shot at seven had Andrew Shaw played an entire season (he has 12 goals in 37 games).

Coach Quenneville really tilts the ice in favor of his top scorers like Marian Hossa, who had his best year since his 100-point campaign with the Thrashers in 2006-07, Patrick Sharp, who enjoyed his third 30-goal season since the lockout (only 31 others have done this, including Hossa), the consistent Patrick Kane, who joins Martin St. Louis and Henrik Zetterberg as the only player to record 20 goals and 40 assists in each of the past five seasons, 2009-10 playoff MVP Jonathan Toews, and surprise breakout player Viktor Stalberg, whose 22 even-strength goals gave Chicago three players in the top 25 (just like Pittsburgh).

Facing the league's fifth-best offense is a rather average defense that features Rostislav Klesla and David Schlemko as the top defensive pairing. Fortunately, they have lots of veterans like Adrian Aucoin, Michal Rozsival, and Derek Morris to help their young star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and to carefully protect offensive specialist Keith Yandle.

Up front, non-descript defensive forwards Boyd Gordon and Lauri Korpikoski are tasked with slowing down Chicago's potent offense, assisted by the newly acquired Antoine Vermette and a cast of mostly responsible defensive players.

Still, that doesn't look like much—Klelsa, Schlemko, Gordon, and Korpikoski? How did a team of aged veterans and no-name journeymen plugs like this make the postseason? We're not sure, but a great goalie who led the league in GVT sure helped.

Stepping in for Ilya Bryzgalov in the offseason, Mike Smith followed up two straight seasons in the .900 range with Tampa Bay with a monster .930 in Phoenix—a rather extreme example of going from an environment unfriendly to goalie save percentages to one that couldn't be friendlier.

The bad news is that there's no chance of Phoenix being one of those teams whose goalie catches fire and goes on a Cinderella run—Smith is already on fire, allowing just two goals in his last five starts, and must remain that way just for them to compete at an equal footing.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks

Phoenix Power Play vs. Chicago Penalty Kill

Phoenix Coyotes Power Play: -9.7 GVT (Rank: 28th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks Penalty Kill: -10.7 (Rank: 24th in NHL)
Total: Phoenix Coyotes, +1.0 GVT

Phoenix's primary asset with the man advantage is power play specialist Keith Yandle, who pairs up quite nicely with the young Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Unfortunately, the Coyotes really lack offense up front, relying on a 39-year-old Ray Whitney playing alongside secondary contributors like Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan, and Martin Hanzal.

The good news for Phoenix is Chicago's enigmatically weak penalty killers. The acquisition of Johnny Oduya should somewhat bolster their blue line trio of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson, and the return of a healthy Jonathan Toews will help lighten the load on Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa, but it's still a very beatable collection of defenders.

Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes

Chicago Power Play vs. Phoenix Penalty Kill

Chicago Blackhawks Power Play: -2.7 GVT (Rank: 21st in NHL)
Phoenix Coyotes Penalty Kill: +7.4 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Chicago Blackhawks, -4.7 GVT

It's hard to believe that Chicago's power play ranks in the bottom third, given highly-skilled players like Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Andrew Brunette (who is working through a late season foot injury) up front, and Duncan Keith with either Brent Seabrook or Nick Leddy on defense, but they got off to a very cold start and then struggled with the same inconsistency they foreshadowed in 2010-11.

To make matters even worse, the Hawks will be facing a versatile penalty killing lineup, where every defenseman is usable (except Keith Yandle), and where they've been quietly and consistently well-served by relatively no-name forwards like the aforementioned Boyd Gordon and Lauri Korpikoski.

Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes

Season Series Results

Phoenix took the season series 2-1, with one other game requiring the shootout, and the Coyotes outscored Chicago 12-9 in those four games (not counting the shootout winner). These two teams have never faced each other in the postseason, not even when the Phoenix Coyotes were back in Winnipeg.

These are also two very hot teams. Phoenix is on a roll with five straight wins where they've outscored their opponents 16-2, and Chicago had just a single regulation loss in their final 14 games.

Advantage: Phoenix Coyotes

Injuries and Intangibles

Other than the ongoing ownership distraction, the obvious intangible is that Phoenix hasn't won a playoff series since 1986-87, when a 23-year-old Dale Hawerchuk led the Winnipeg Jets to a six-game upset over the Calgary Flames before being swept by Wayne Gretzky's Oilers in the second round. Since then, they've made first round exits 12 times (four times at the hands of the Red Wings, including an utter demolition last year), and missed the playoffs altogether almost as often.

Meanwhile, Chicago was virtually unstoppable for two seasons, winning the Cup in 2009-10 and advancing to the Conference finals in 2008-09, but had the misfortune of facing the Vancouver Canucks in the first round last year. They could easily have gone all the way had just one bounce gone their way in that incredibly close series.

This should prove to be a classic coaching matchup, pitting two long-time friends who played together in Hartford for seven seasons, and very briefly in Washington immediately thereafter. In that time, Joel Quenneville and Dave Tippett also both played with Phoenix GM Don Maloney, former Atlanta coach John Anderson, Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth, and Florida coach Kevin Dineen—wouldn't it be neat if one of these two teams met Florida in the finals? And by neat, we mean highly improbable.

If anyone has the edge behind the bench, it's probably Chicago. After all, Quenneville has the most wins among active NHL coaches and two Stanley Cups (one as an assistant with Colorado). This will be his 13th postseason appearance as a coach, including the year he won the Jack Adams in 2000 with St. Louis.

Of course, Dave Tippett is no slouch either, having won the Jack Adams himself in 2010. This will be his eighth postseason appearance and Phoenix's 97 points this year was actually the second-worst result in his nine seasons as a coach. Simply amazing!

The other big question is the status of Chicago's captain Jonathan Toews, who recently suffered a concussion, but is rumored to be ready to return.

Advantage: Chicago Blackhawks


Phoenix Coyotes: +12.0 GVT (Rank: 12th in NHL)
Chicago Blackhawks: +10.0 GVT (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Total difference: Phoenix Coyotes, +2.0 GVT

Chicago is one of the league's best puck possession teams, but they're running into a disciplined and veteran collection of responsible two-way players with an edge of special teams and a huge advantage in nets.

This series is as evenly matched as it can get, and really too close to call. Given that Winnipeg finally has its team back, perhaps the hockey gods will finally allow the light to shine on the Coyotes, who can subsequently have the pleasure of being absolutely demolished by Detroit, but this time in the second round.

Phoenix Coyotes in seven games

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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