Fresh off their first-ever Pacific Division title, the Phoenix Coyotes will start the playoffs at home tonight as they host the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Coyotes are in the playoffs for a third straight year and are thankful to have a new opponent. In each of their previous two postseasons, the Coyotes were matched up with the Detroit 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.
"Winning the division, it means home ice - it's something you want to hang your hat on," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said on Wednesday. "It's an accomplishment for our group and we'll certainly take that, but ... it's something we need to take advantage of."
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.
While Smith has made only three appearances in the NHL postseason, the Coyotes have plenty of playoff experience 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.
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.
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).
For the sixth-seeded Blackhawks, the biggest question heading into the postseason is the health of captain Jonathan Toews.
Toews missed the final 22 games of the regular season with a concussion, but he expects to play tonight in the opener of this best-of-seven series. 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.
"I'm right there," Toews said on Wednesday. "It's been another day where I'm getting better and better, getting back to where I want to be as far as if I'm going to play a game. We'll see how it goes tomorrow."
More importantly, Chicago's offensive core of Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa were all part of the franchise's 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.
While Toews appears to be back for the Blackhawks, the situation in net still leaves room for doubt. Corey Crawford took over the reigns last season for Antti Niemi, who was allowed to walk after backstopping Chicago to its Cup title in 2010, and the Blackhawks were ousted in the first round in seven games by the eventual Western Conference-champion Vancouver Canucks.
Crawford did well in the playoffs last year, posting a 2.21 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in the seven starts, but he 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.
Aiding Crawford's case is the fact that 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.
The Blackhawks and Coyotes 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 recent 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.
The Coyotes were 22-13-6 as the host this season at Jobing.com Arena, while Chicago was just 18-18-5 on the road.
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Saturday in Phoenix.