First-round breakdown: Coyotes-Wings
Surely, the Cinderella Coyotes deserved better than this. Surely, there must be a better prize for proving the hockey world wrong en route to the NHL's most surprising season than drawing the hottest team on the planet in the first round.
But that's just what Phoenix did get in Detroit, by far the worst possible matchup for the hard-working Coyotes. The two teams split the season series 2-2-0, but haven't played since late January. In other words, the Coyotes haven't faced the terrorizing, post-Olympic Red Wings yet.
No team in the West wanted to draw the Red Wings in the first round, not with Detroit rolling to an NHL-best 16-3-2 record since the Games in Vancouver. Being the hottest team in the NHL is one thing; but then you add in the fact it's the Red Wings, hockey's model and most successful NHL franchise in this era? Yup, that big gulp you just heard is coming from the Coyotes.
But you know what? The Desert Dogs have been told they weren't for real all season, and this will be the ultimate chance for them to prove people wrong, once and for all.
1. Coaching duel: The series pits the slam-dunk pick for this season's Jack Adams Award in Phoenix's Dave Tippett against the man most consider the best coach in hockey, Mike Babcock. The Coyotes players always mention Tippett as the biggest reason for their success. Babcock, meanwhile, coached Team Canada to Olympic gold earlier this year in about as pressure-packed a situation as you can ever find in the sport. It should be intriguing to see both bench bosses try to outmaneuver each other in this series.
2. Hot goalies: Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov is a legitimate candidate for the Hart and Vezina trophies this year. Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard doesn't take a backseat, either; he is also a Vezina threat, not to mention a Calder Trophy candidate for rookie of the year. Goals should be hard to come by in this series. Howard, of course, has never appeared in an NHL playoff game, so that can't be overlooked. Still, Bryzgalov isn't exactly deep in playoff experience with only 16 games in his career (mind you, he was Jean-Sebastien Giguere's backup during Anaheim's 2007 Cup run).
3. Special teams: The Red Wings and Coyotes both finished within the top 10 in penalty killing, but it's on the power play where Detroit has a big edge. The Wings were ninth in the league, while the Coyotes struggled all season long in that area to finish 28th in the NHL. Dismal. Having said that, late-season pickup Lee Stempniak has been a force on the power play and helped the unit dig out of the NHL's basement after his arrival.
4. Defensive prowess: The Coyotes ranked only 24th in the NHL in goals per game (2.57) and were brutal on the power play. So how can a team overcome those obstacles to finish fourth in the Western Conference? Defense, defense, defense. The Coyotes ranked third in the NHL in goals against per game (2.39), playing a committed style that suffocates the opposition and, on many nights, rips away its will to compete. The Coyotes were fifth in the league in five-on-five goals for/against ratio, whereas the Wings were 21st. Having said that, the Red Wings were no slouches defensively; they ranked in the top 10 in goals against per game (2.52), which once again suggests this could be a low-scoring series.
5. No shootouts: Not to take anything away from the Coyotes' wonderful season, but the fact remains they led the NHL with 14 shootout victories (Detroit had six). The skill event, loved by fans and hated by coaches and GMs, now goes away in the postseason. Whatever advantage or confidence the Coyotes gained from the game-ending event is now history.
• Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall versus any Coyotes forward (keep your head up, boys): Kronwall is the game's best open-ice hitter and specializes in hammering an unsuspecting forward trying to leave his zone with the puck on a breakout. Look for Kronwall to set the tempo with a big hit early in the series.
• Phoenix: Stempniak is as hot as an inferno. Acquired from the Maple Leafs before the trade deadline, the forward has scored 14 goals in 18 games with the Coyotes. Forward Martin Hanzal is pointless in his past nine regular-season games.
• Detroit: Detroit's penalty kill is hot, having killed off 49 of the past 53 opposition power plays to finish the regular season. Blueliner Jonathan Ericsson is not, registering only two points in 16 games after the Olympics.
• The Hollywood script says Phoenix, but reality says the Big Red Machine. The hottest team in hockey since the Olympic break isn't going down this early. Red Wings in six games.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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