Fans of the Phoenix Coyotes have to be wondering which club will show up for its upcoming opening-round matchup: the one that dominated the month of February or the squad that struggled through a good portion of March before getting hot at the end.
If February's team shows up, than the Coyotes are primed to advance out of the postseason's first-round for the first time since relocating to the desert.
At the very least, Phoenix should be happy with a new first-round opponent. In each of their previous two postseasons, the Coyotes were matched up with the Red Wings and failed to move on. Phoenix pushed the 2010 series to seven games, but was swept out of the opening round a year ago.
Many wondered if the Coyotes would be able to get back to the playoffs after the offseason loss of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, but Mike Smith has found a home in Phoenix. The 30-year-old joined his third NHL team in six seasons when he signed with the Coyotes and set career highs across the board with 38 wins, eight shutouts, a 2.21 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
Smith was dominating at times, winning 11 straight starts from Feb. 4-28 and ending the regular season with five victories in a row. That included three straight shutouts before back-to-back 4-1 wins, with the latter one against the Wild securing the Coyotes' first Pacific Division title in franchise history.
Smith posted a career-high shutout streak of 234 minutes and 25 seconds that ended in his second-to-last game, getting himself on track after an up-and- down March in which he went 6-4-3 with a 2.47 GAA. But the real test now begins for the netminder, who has made just three career appearances in the playoffs, with one start, while allowing two goals on 48 shots in that time with the Lightning in 2010.
While the Coyotes lack playoff experience in the crease, they have plenty of it up front in Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Shane Doan. Whitney and Vrbata form Phoenix's most dangerous line that is centered by Martin Hanzal, and both put together excellent regular seasons.
Whitney led the Coyotes with 77 points while playing in all 82 games, and reached a milestone this season with his 1,000th career point. Vrbata, meanwhile, had a career-high 35 goals and 12 of them were game-winners to match Steven Stamkos for the league lead as well as Jeremy Roenick's franchise record set in 1999-2000.
Doan, the Coyotes' captain, also reached the 20-goal mark and was third on the club with 50 points.
Phoenix had 10 players reach double-digit goals, but only Vrbata, Whitney and Doan reached at least 20. Winger Lauri Korpikoski was the next highest among 'Yotes forwards with 17, while the gritty Raffi Torres had 15.
Torres reached the Stanley Cup Finals last season with the Canucks and also came up short in a bid for the Cup while with the Oilers in 2006 against Whitney's Hurricanes.
Whitney leads all Phoenix players with 87 postseason contests, 19 goals, 27 assists and 46 points, while Daymond Langkow is second on the team with 14 goals, 23 assists and 37 points in 59 career playoff games.
Antoine Vermette, Mikkel Boedker and Taylor Pyatt round out the Coyotes' offensive attack.
While scoring depth may not be a strength of the Coyotes up front, they have a pair of defensemen who know how to put up points. Both Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson reached double-digit goals with 11 and 13, respectively, while Yandle ended another solid campaign with 43 points. Ekman-Larsson, the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft, had a breakout campaign and his 13 goals were the most by a Phoenix defenseman since Teppo Numminen's 13 in 2001-02.
Veterans Derek Morris, Michal Rozsival and former Blackhawk Adrian Aucoin round out a decent defensive grouping that will need to stay healthy.
Despite having Yandle and Ekman-Larsson firing away from the blue line, the Coyotes ranked 29th out of 30 NHL teams on the power play at 13.6 percent, while their penalty kill was eighth (85.5 percent).
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (6th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 45-26-11
2011 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Vancouver 4-3 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said he is confident he will be able to play in his club's first-round postseason series.
That probably isn't the word that best describes Chicago's goaltending situation.
The Blackhawks are just two years removed from lifting Lord Stanley's Cup after beating the Flyers in six games to cap the 2010 playoffs. Their hero in that run to the championship was goaltender Antti Niemi, but financial reasons now have him skating with the San Jose Sharks.
With Corey Crawford taking over the reigns last season, the Blackhawks were ousted n the first round in seven games by the eventual Western Conference- champion Vancouver Canucks, with Crawford posting a 2.21 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in the seven starts.
Crawford, Chicago's likely Game 1 starter, took a step back in 2011-12, going 30-17-7 with a 2.72 GAA and .903 save percentage. He yielded 27 starts to Ray Emery, who made the team out of camp on a tryout contract and went 15-9-4 with a 2.81 GAA and .900 save percentage.
Those similar numbers can't have the 'Hawks feeling great about their goaltending.
That makes the return of Toews that much more important. Chicago needed all the wins it could get down the stretch thanks to a nine-game losing streak from Jan. 21-Feb. 14, with all but one of those defeats coming regulation. The Blackhawks also played the final 22 games of the regular season without Toews due to a concussion, but the center thinks he will be able to suit up for Thursday's opener.
Even with the missed time, Toews tied for second on the club with 29 goals and was fourth with 57 points. He is a key part of an offense that ranked tied for fifth with 241 goals and had five skaters break the 20-goal barrier. Dave Bolland fell just one goal shy of making it six.
More importantly, Chicago's offensive core of Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa were all part of the Cup-winning club from two years back. Chicago's expected top line of Toews, Kane (23 goals, 43 assists) and point-leader Hossa (29G, 48A) is one of the best in the game, while Sharp adds great depth with a team-high 33 goals.
Viktor Stalberg wasn't part of the 2009-10 club, but the 26-year-old Swede broke out this season with 22 goals, 21 assists and 43 points. Marcus Kruger has looked good between Stalberg and Sharp, while Bolland's line of Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw can grind.
Chicago has a former Norris Trophy winner on its top defensive pairing with Duncan Keith, who led all Blackhawks blueliners with 36 assists and 40 points while playing almost 27 minutes a night. His partner Brent Seabrook had a plus-21 rating, while Johnny Oduya gave Chicago a much-needed puck carrier when he was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets before the trade deadline.
Nick Leddy disappointed with a minus-12 rating while playing all 82 games and Niklas Hjalmarsson struggled to stay healthy.
If there is one area that could be Chicago's undoing, it is special teams. The Blackhawks tied for just 25th in the NHL on the power play (15.2 percent), though that unit has the potential to get hot at any moment.
Hossa could be the key. He has been excellent in his playoff career, notching 36 goals, 61 assists and 97 points in 127 postseason contests. Sharp (39 points) and Kane (48 points) have also produced in their playoff careers, while Toews, who has 46 points in 26 playoff games, was the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010.
The 'Hawks also were near the bottom of the league on the penalty kill, ranking 27th at 78.1 percent.
These two clubs have never met in the postseason and the Coyotes won three of the four regular-season meetings, including one in a shootout. Both teams struggled on the power play against each other, with Phoenix going 0-for-7 and Chicago scoring just twice in 12 opportunities up a man.
Smith won all three of his starts against the Blackhawks, posting a 1.29 GAA and picking up a shutout in the most previous encounter on Feb. 11 in Phoenix.
Crawford and Emery both appeared in three of the four meetings with the Coyotes. The former went 1-1 with a 4.28 GAA, while Emery was 0-1-1 with a much-better 1.52 GAA.
Vrbata led all Phoenix skaters with three goals in the four games against the Blackhawks, while Whitney had two goals and a team-best six points. Toews led Chicago with three goals and an assist, while both Sharp and Kane also lit the lamp and combined for seven points.
The Coyotes were a streaky team in the second half, but ended the regular season on the upswing, while the Blackhawks posted an 8-1-4 mark over their final 13 games.
Chicago certainly has firepower potential on offense, though it will take Toews some time to round into form. That's okay for the Blackhawks since they finished strong without their captain anyway.
It could be too late though if the Coyotes can ride Smith to a quick start and get production from their bottom lines against a shaky Blackhawks goaltending situation.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Coyotes in 6