|Phoenix won three of the four regular season meetings, but will that success carry over to the playoffs?(Getty Images)|
Perhaps the best news for the Phoenix Coyotes heading into the 2011-12 postseason isn't that they won a division title for the first time in franchise history (though, that was certainly good news), but by doing so they helped to avoid what would have been a third straight opening round matchup with the Detroit Red Wings, the team that has eliminated in each of the past two seasons.
Unfortunately, the team they did draw, the Chicago Blackhawks, is a pretty good clone for the way the Red Wings play (offensive zone pressure, a lot of shots on goal, control the puck at even strength), and probably isn't the best matchup for the Coyotes, even though Phoenix ended up winning the season series, winning twice in regulation and once in a shootout.
Phoenix's success in the opening round is most likely going to come down to one thing: Can Mike Smith continue his Vezina level play and steal it?
PHX Offense vs. CHI Defense
One of the biggest concerns for Phoenix heading into this series is where the offense is going to come from, and whether or not there is enough on the roster to keep up with the chances (and goals) that Chicago can (and most likely will) generate.
Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata have had outstanding seasons -- relatively unnoticed seasons, as it turns out -- but who else is capable of stepping up and delivering offense?
CHI Offense vs. PHX Defense
With the Blackhawks expecting (hoping) to get Jonathan Toews and Dave Bolland back for the playoffs, they have one of the deepest, most talented group of forwards in the Western Conference and are one of the highest scoring teams in the league. They're one of the best possession teams in the NHL at even strength and will be going up against one of the worst possession teams to make the playoffs, which means most of this series could be played directly in front of goaltender Mike Smith and the Phoenix net.
Hopefully he's ready to face a lot of frozen rubber flying in his direction.
Just like it was during their Stanley Cup run in 2009-10, goaltending is a huge question mark for the Blackhawks heading into the playoffs as Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have done little to inspire much confidence, and this is the one area Phoenix has what should be a sizable advantage. And it's going to need it. Smith turned out to be one of the best free agent signings of the season, and he's been a big part of the Coyotes success this season.
It's hard to see a situation where Phoenix wins this season without Smith playing at his best.
For as strong as Chicago is at even strength, it's had its share of struggles during special teams this season, finishing near the bottom of the league on the power play and when shorthanded. Phoenix's power play didn't end up much better, but it was a top-10 team in shorthanded situations, so we'll give the the Coyotes slight edge. How much that matters remains to be seen, as both teams were among the least penalized teams in the NHL this season in terms of the number of times they were shorthanded.
PredictionAn upset but no one would be shocked if it happened.
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