Goaltending rules the day out West
CHICAGO -- The changing of the guard in the West is now complete.
The Phoenix Coyotes joined the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the playoffs; a fresh-faced group signaling not only a new era in the Western Conference but also a change in style of play.
All four teams, to varying degrees, play defense-first systems and win low-scoring games when they're having success.
"I really do think it has a lot to do with team play," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said after Monday's 4-0 series-clinching win. "You look at the way Nashville plays, St. Louis plays, I think that's how you have to win in today's hockey. Probably the best example is the Boston Bruins last year. They were a hard, committed team that just grinded through series and ended up being the Stanley Cup champion."
Much like the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings in their playoff series, the Chicago Blackhawks were stymied against the Coyotes, scoring only 12 goals in six games.
While the Blues totally shut down the Sharks from even approaching the net, the Hawks got plenty of rubber on Smith in this series but hit a 6-foot-4 brick wall. Try 39 saves on Monday night.
Perhaps for the first-round losers in the West it's a sign that they need to adjust the way they play and fill out their rosters to compete with these emerging clubs.
"That [Smith's] effort tonight was just how he'd been for us the last two months," Coyotes GM Don Maloney told ESPN.com Monday night outside a boisterous visitors' dressing room. "That was the Coyotes rope-a-dope at its finest tonight [outshot 28-8 through 40 minutes].
"He was the star of the show tonight and in this series. I thought he willed us into the playoffs and he willed us to this win in the first round."
Not enough has been said of the incredible work from Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke in turning around Smith's career. Smith is a guy almost nobody wanted after being discarded in Tampa Bay.
"I wouldn't be where I am right now without him," Smith said of Burke, while also crediting his longtime personal goalie coach, Jon Elkin. "I've grown with Jon and grown a fundamental base that I believe in. Sean has fine-tuned my game to the point where I feel really confident in what I'm doing. I wouldn't be in this situation without Sean."
I bring you back to a conversation I had with Maloney during a preseason stop in September.
He said: "Obviously the goaltending with Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera, if they can give us top-15 to top-10 goaltending in the league, then we're going to be fine. If we don't get above-average goaltending, especially in our division, it's going to be a struggle. But I'm excited about Mike. I think Sean Burke has had a great success with other goalies."
Consider that the premonition of the year. Although he didn't get top-15 goaltending; he got top-three.
Let's all admit it: When Ilya Bryzgalov walked out the door last June (the Coyotes traded his rights to Philadelphia before he became an unrestricted free agent), we all wondered just how the cash-strapped Coyotes would survive.
Ah, but there's the rub. Never count out a team coached by Dave Tippett; yet another important theme linking all four of these second-round teams together: Tippett, Ken Hitchcock, Barry Trotz and Darryl Sutter -- among la creme de la creme.
For Tippett and the Coyotes, it's a remarkable achievement. Three years of constant ownership issues, the team's future still not resolved and somehow three straight playoff trips. And finally, the Coyotes will make a trip to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since moving from Winnipeg.
"From a franchise standpoint, there's such negative stigma that we've fought," Maloney said. "We finally win a division. We finally win a playoff round. This is just the first step to us regaining some credibility. You can't lose and lose and lose and expect people to support you. So hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we'll get somebody behind the scenes to take a look at this again and say, 'Hey, maybe it can work in Arizona.' So all in all, it's a great night tonight."
Tippett, after Monday's game, assembled the team in the dressing room and asked captain Shane Doan, the only former Jet on the team who made the move to Phoenix, to speak about what it felt like to finally win a series.
"It's exciting," Doan told reporters afterward. "It's hard to explain and put into words. I'm sure I'll put this into words in a better way later."
Questions loom for Hawks
Putting this first-round loss into words wasn't an easy task in the home dressing room. Captain Jonathan Toews slumped back in his locker as he pondered a season that began with high expectations for the 2010 Cup champs.
"You want to find a way to win that last game of the year, every year," Toews said. "You don't want to go out on a loss, especially the way we did tonight. It's disappointing for this group. I feel like we had so much more than what we ended up showing. We gave it everything, it just didn't go our way. I'm disappointed we couldn't give our fans more than that."
Much like in Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver, this will be an intriguing offseason for the Hawks. They have questions in goal with Corey Crawford, who struggled in his sophomore season. They still don't have a true No. 2 center and that was exposed in this series. And their depth on defense is questionable.
There's a solid crop of prospects in the system for Chicago, but there will be pressure on Chicago GM Stan Bowman to act. Some people will wonder about Joel Quenneville's future, but after the above-mentioned roster issues, not sure how you pin that on the coach.
Again, the Hawks have to ask themselves whether they're playing the right brand of hockey and carrying the right kind of roster to win in this conference.