Unlike last season, where they backed into the playoffs on the season’s final day, winding up as the eight seed, the Blackhawks head into this year’s postseason riding some serious momentum, after wavering for a good chunk of the middle part of the season.
The Hawks have lost just two games in regulation since the beginning of March, with four more coming in the shootout since that time. Everything else has been a win for these Blackhawks, and they’re doing it without Jonathan Toews.
It’s Toews’ health that is the real wild card of the series, on the Chicago end. He was sounding like he’d be good to go by the end of the regular season, but now isn’t even certain for Game 1, set to take place on Thursday.
One way or the other, the Toews factor likely changes who has the edge in the series. So, since nothing is confirmed, let’s just assume that the Blackhawks are going to at least open the series without the captain in the lineup. The hope is obviously the other way, but until we get a real confirmation, there’s really no way to say he’ll be ready by Thursday.
Even without Toews, it’s not as if the Blackhawks are in serious trouble in this series, even if the Coyotes do have a slight edge.
Where they do have the edge is between the pipes. Corey Crawford has dazzled us with his play of late, after slumping throughout most of the year, and looks to carry his recent stretch into the playoffs. On the Phoenix side, though, Mike Smith has been unbelievable.
Smith has jumped into the Vezina trophy conversation, with a steady year, but has been particularly dominant of late, recording the third-longest shutout streak of any goaltender in the NHL this season. He posted three consecutive shutouts, including a 54 save effort against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Offensively, there’s obviously an advantage to the Blackhawks. Even without Toews, the Blackhawks still boast a lineup that includes Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa, as well as the emergence of secondary scoring in guys like Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw.
But the defensive edge goes to the Coyotes, thanks to the fact that they’re a top five team as far as goals-against go, and are boosted by Smith on the back end. Even allowing 32 shots a game hasn’t hurt the Coyotes statistically.
The Hawks have been much better on the defensive side, though. Much of that is thanks to the addition of Johnny Oduya, who has been fantastic since joining the Hawks, but if they end up having to skate Sean O’Donnell regular minutes in this series, there’s definitely a reason to be concerned.
An easy way to get an advantage is for the Blackhawks to score first. The Coyotes won just nine out of 39 games when their opponents scored first. The Coyotes are a team that depends on a system, and the Blackhawks are going to have to get out to a lead to get them out of that system.
The Toews factor notwithstanding, this is a series that is going to come down to defense and special teams. If the Hawks can get some traffic in front of Smith, stay out of the box, and play well in their own zone, not allowing the Coyotes the dirty goals that they covet, they will be just fine.
Stay tuned, as I’ll be breaking down each element of this series heading into Thursday in finer detail. And don’t forget to check out Five Hole Dive for all of your NHL Stanley Cup Playoff news.