As Thursday nears, we are getting closer and closer to the opening puck dropping for the Western Conference Quarterfinal matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Phoenix Coyotes, in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Just judging by everything out on the ‘net and on the Twittersphere, folks seem pretty split on who could take this series. And there’s certainly a case to be made for both teams.
Despite the fact that their stingy defense matches up well against the Blackhawks, I have a hard time giving the edge to the Coyotes, simply because of the amount of offense the Hawks bring to the table, and the fact that their defense has been much improved since they acquired Johnny Oduya.
Regardless of whether or not they’re actually able to dispatch the Coyotes from this year’s postseason, there’s one thing the Blackhawks absolutely, positively must do to find success in this series: get to Mike Smith.
Smith has had an unbelievable season for the Coyotes. The owner of the third longest shutout streak in the NHL this season, Smith recorded 161 saves, which is the most amount of saves during such a streak in the history of the National Hockey League. It’s play like that that has helped Smith work his way into the Vezina Trophy discussion.
Most of the credit is obviously due to Smith, who has really stepped up for a Coyotes team that would likely be golfing by now if it weren’t for him. But he’s also the beneficiary of the defensive system that Dave Tippett has in place for this Phoenix squad. And it works for them.
The formula for beating the Coyotes is as simple as getting into Smith’s head. If the Hawks can do that, they can take the largest advantage that Phoenix has out of the equation and really run the table in this series.
So just how do the Blackhawks get into Smith’s head and knock him off of his very impressive game? More than anything, it comes down to a net presence when they’re in the offensive zone. Pretty much at all times, the Hawks are going to need guys planted in front of Smith, creating traffic, wreaking havoc down in the crease.
Smith has owned the Blackhawks this season, mostly thanks to the fact that they’ve whipped shots from a distance, rather than trying to get to the dirty areas. Against Smith, and this Coyotes team as a whole, they’re going to need to have that willingness to battle for every puck, and to score some cheap goals.
Taking Smith nearly out of the equation would make life much easier for the Hawks in this series. Of course, that’s easier said than done with the way he’s played this year. But it’s a relatively simple formula to follow. Knock him off his game, and you knock the Coyotes off of theirs. This isn’t a team that has great success playing from behind. Jump on him early, jump on him often.