Commentary

First-round preview: Coyotes-Hawks

Updated: April 11, 2012, 10:04 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Most Chicago Blackhawks fans no doubt were relieved to draw the Phoenix Coyotes for their first-round matchup rather than divisional rivals Nashville or Detroit, or even a more established playoff team such as San Jose.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

The Coyotes won three out of the four regular-season games against the Blackhawks and enter the postseason on a roll, with five straight victories en route to a stunning Pacific Division title.

It's the first playoff encounter between the contrasting franchises, the ownerless Coyotes and their blue-collar, on-ice approach versus the Original Six, deep-pocketed Blackhawks and their razzle-dazzle offensive machine.

Phoenix is the No. 3 seed to Chicago's No. 6 seed. But who's fooling who? The Hawks had 101 points to the Coyotes' 97 and are the clear favorites.


1. The health and impact of Jonathan Toews: The Hawks captain and 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, Jonathan Toews, hasn't played since Feb. 19 because of a concussion. All signs point to a return for the playoffs, although it must be seen as a red flag that he didn't feel well enough to play in at least one regular-season game just to shake off the cobwebs. After he does return, he'll be closely scrutinized for his impact and performance. But there's no question once he's fully back to normal, the 2010 Olympic star for Team Canada can dominate a series like few players in the league.

2. Mike Smith is on fire: Coyotes netminder Mike Smith has allowed only two goals in his past five games, turning aside an astonishing 190 of 192 shots. His overall season has been sensational and he deserves a Vezina Trophy nomination, even though he likely won't get one. The Coyotes have the edge in goal over Chicago, although Corey Crawford softened what has generally been a sophomore disappointment with a solid stretch run.

3. Special teams: The Blackhawks are a special-teams disaster, ranking 26th on the power play and 27th on the penalty kill. Hardly numbers that make you envision a Stanley Cup championship in two months. It's the power-play numbers that confound, given all the offensive talent on this team. The Coyotes were eighth on the PK, so that's a matchup they don't mind. On the flip side, Phoenix hugely struggled on the power play, ranking 29th with a meager 13.6 percent success rate. Something's got to give between the Coyotes' sad-sack PP and the Hawks' brutal PK.

4. The Wizard rocks: Ray Whitney turns 40 next month. You certainly wouldn't know it by watching him play this season. The gifted winger potted a team-leading 77 points, the second-best tally of his career. He's sneaky good, too. You won't notice him for a number of shifts before he suddenly pops up with a big offensive play. Whitney was a key member of the 2006 underdog Carolina Hurricanes team that won the Stanley Cup. Will history repeat itself here?

5. Ownership distraction in Phoenix: Coyotes players would later admit that last spring they were massively distracted by strong rumors of a franchise move to Winnipeg just as the puck dropped for their first-round series with Detroit. Turns out it was Atlanta that got shipped north, not Phoenix, but the rumors wreaked havoc with the Coyotes' focus and they got waxed -- and I mean seriously waxed -- in four straight games by the Red Wings. The NHL has done a better job this time around -- at least so far -- of keeping a lid on what the future holds for the still-ownerless Coyotes. More reports or rumors might surface over the next two weeks, and the Coyotes' players need to do a better job of ignoring them this time around. Easier said than done.


• Dave Bolland vs. the Coyotes' top offensive threats: The Blackhawks third-line center made a name for himself over the past few years, driving the Sedin twins crazy in three playoffs series versus the Canucks. Bolland is one of the NHL's top pests, a smart, two-way center who uses his antics to get under the skin of top opposing players. You've been warned, Radim Vrbata, Ray Whitney and Shane Doan.


• Corey Crawford: A year ago at this time, Corey Crawford was a hero in a losing effort with his performance in the seven-game, first-round loss to Vancouver. But, as is often the case with second-year netminders, Crawford suffered from a sophomore slump this season, which reignited the goalie debate in Chicago. Crawford finished strong, which helped ease some concerns, but he'll be a point of focus in this series, no question.

• Shane Doan: Two years ago, an injury early in their series with Detroit robbed captain Shane Doan of a chance to play in the rest of the round, including watching helplessly as the Coyotes dropped Game 7 at home. Last spring, as noted above, the team was a mess with rumors of the franchise moving to Winnipeg, so it didn't matter what Doan did. So here's the chance for the face of the franchise to further entrench his legacy with the only team he's ever played for and lead his team to an upset win over Chicago.


• The gutsy call of the first round would be to pick Phoenix. And you really want to because you want to see such a hard-working team finally rewarded after two first-round exits the past two years, you want to see one of the game's top coaches in Dave Tippett rewarded for his countless efforts in maximizing the talent he's been given and you'd like to see captain Shane Doan and his teammates rewarded for being able to play through three years of ownership distraction. But the Hawks are just deeper and more talented. Unless Mike Smith steals it, the 2010 Cup champs should prevail. Blackhawks in 6.