The Phoenix Coyotes will take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's a winnable series, but the Coyotes are in for a rough ride from the 'Hawks, who are loaded with big-game experience and arguably one of the best followings in the NHL.
Looking ahead to the series opener on Thursday, I'll break down why I think the Coyotes can win this series and advance to the franchise's first ever second round playoff appearance and what the Blackhawks will use try and shutdown the Desert Dogs.
Concern: Blackhawks top forwards
The combination of Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marion Hossa, Jonathan Toews -- if healthy -- present a dangerous attacking group for the Coyotes defense-first style of play. The 'Hawks top guys attack from the get-go and are very aggressive, skating right at defenses and using their speed and skill to pick them apart. All of these guys have big-game experience, both in the NHL and in international competitions. If the Coyotes can't stop these guys, the series could go badly.
Relief: Mike Smith
The Coyotes netminder has been, in one word, huge. He is having a career season and has risen from a backup goaltender splitting his time between the NHL and AHL to, arguably, being in the Vezina candidate talks. Should the Coyotes defense falter against the talented top lines of Chicago -- it will happen -- Smith will have to be solid. Given his recent play, I think this will be some of the best goaltending we've seen all season.
The Blackhawks are one of the best-followed teams in the country -- a member of the Original Six and a fan base who loves their team no matter what (look at the Cubs). The team travels well, with many transplants snatching up tickets that will create a mixed atmosphere at Jobing.com. The Coyotes should be used to this, but a large number of fans for the visiting team could take a slight bit of steam out of the team. Add in the Blackhawks incredible home crowd, and the Coyotes nerves are guaranteed to be tested.
Relief: Team solidarity
The Coyotes are one of the closest-knit teams I have ever seen. There is not a single seam in between any of the guys on the team, let alone a rift. Having been on the receiving end of relocation rumors, transplant fans in their own arena and constant sweeping aside in both local and national coverage, this team has learned how to be self-sufficient and take care of itself. This series is going to be a grind and the Coyotes will need to depend on one another to pull themselves through the first round.
The Coyotes have come to rely on young players. Guys like Oliver Ekmann-Larssen, Michael Stone and Chris Summers -- oddly all defensemen -- will be targeted by a veteran 'Hawks side. They'll be on the receiving end of physical play, a fast forecheck and creative attacking and will have to play smart hockey to keep the puck out of the back of the net.
Relief: Wily veterans
As young as the Coyotes are on defense, they're older (read: smarter) on offense. When you have guys with Cup experience like Raffi Torres, Antoine Vermette and the ageless Ray Whitney, the Blackhawks defense will have a lot more on their hands than what they expect. Sure, some of the speed may be lost, but we've all seen what the Wizard can do when it comes to picking teams apart.
Concern: Secondary scoring
If the Coyotes are going to move on in the playoffs, the secondary scoring needs to be a big factor. Guys like Lauri Korpikoski, Taylor Pyatt and Mikkel Boedker have to find the net or set up their fellow teammates. Chicago can hurt you on any line and, while players like Vrbata, Whitney and Doan will be expected to score, the secondary scorers need to make every Coyotes line dangerous or else the 'Hawks will focus on shutting down the top lines.
Relief: Corey Crawford
The Blackhawks netminder has been good this year, but not great. His technique has been questionable as of late and panics when the puck is in close. His movements can be erratic when hurried, so the Coyotes need to crash the net constantly. When he's squared up and ready, Crawford is among the best in the NHL, but when he's rushed, he opens himself up. The Coyotes should attack in close and get him moving. His five-hole has been wide open recently.
The nice thing about the concerns on this list is that the Coyotes have been addressing these as of late. The team is producing and playing some of their best hockey of the year. To win the series -- as I expect them to -- the Coyotes will need to exploit every relief above and continue to capitalize on every opportunity.
I'm predicting the Coyotes win in Game 6 in Chicago, meaning a 4-2 series and a stunned 'Hawks crowd. The Coyotes have been really good away this season and that's one thing that hasn't faltered.
It's going to be a good series -- tough, well-played and highly competitive. Discipline will reign supreme and dumb mistakes can't happen, but I still have faith that we'll see the Coyotes move past the first round for the first time in franchise history.