First-round breakdown: Wings-Coyotes
Look for the storylines to remain the same. Phoenix will try to find a way to scratch out enough offense to stay close to the talented Red Wings, while Detroit will hope to stay healthy enough to put away one of the hardest working teams in the NHL.
You can also expect another back-and-forth, hard-fought series; last year's clash went the full seven games as Detroit walked away with the deciding game in Glendale, Ariz. The two teams split their four regular-season games this season with three of them decided by one goal.
1. Where's the offense?: Although the Coyotes' offense is actually more potent than you might think (they finished 13th in goals per game), they lack a true game-breaker. Their top point-producer was captain Shane Doan, who had just 60 points. He was the team's only 20-goal scorer. The Wings, on the other hand, were second only to Vancouver in goals per game and their power play was ranked fifth in the league (Phoenix's power play was 23rd).
What may be most problematic for the Coyotes, though, is keeping the goals out, especially on the penalty kill. Phoenix was a surprising 26th on the penalty kill; if those numbers hold true, Detroit should have a field day.
Something says that's not going to be the case. Maybe it's defending Jack Adams Award winner Dave Tippett, or maybe it's just the culture of the no-name Coyotes and their constant battle to defy skeptics, but Phoenix has a knack of getting the job done regardless of how things look on paper. One telling stat is the team's solid five-on-five play, which ranks fifth in the league. If they can keep the Wings at bay at even strength, they've got a shot.
2. The happy netminder: It won't be a huge surprise if Ilya Bryzgalov finds himself back on the final ballot for the Vezina Trophy; the Coyotes' winningest goaltender of all time continues to be the backbone of the team and he started 38 of Phoenix's final 40 games. No amount of coaching and hard work gets the Coyotes into the playoffs two years running without superlative goaltending. And there is no way the Coyotes knock off the Red Wings without Bryzgalov being Bryzgalov. How important is he to the Coyotes? Well, the Coyotes were outshot 52 times this season and were still third in the NHL in wins when being outshot by an opponent.
3. Weak Wings?: Detroit locked up the Central Division several weeks ago, so perhaps that explains the sputtering and coughing it did down the stretch. Regardless, it wasn't pretty at times, as the Wings won just four of their last 11 games. The power play and penalty kill weren't great, either. But their performance Sunday, in what was for them a relatively meaningless game against a highly motivated Chicago team, revealed a proud, hard-working club that held on for a 4-3 road win. Can they muster that kind of intensity and level of commitment once the playoffs start? There is no switch, even for a team like the Wings; but Sunday showed such a team still lurks behind the Winged Wheel regardless of the angst Detroit fans have been feeling for the past few weeks.
4. Intimidation factor: The Red Wings have been to the playoffs for 20 straight seasons. The fact they won a Cup as recently as 2008 and were finalists again in 2009 gives them the kind of cachet few teams possess. Late in games, Detroit still has the mojo. The Wings were 32-8-6 when leading or tied after two periods and have outscored opponents 84-67 in the third period while being outscored 84-75 in the first period.
We're not suggesting the Coyotes will be intimidated by the Wings; last year's seven-game set suggests that isn't the case. But the bottom line is, there is just something about the Red Wings in the clutch. Does it bring out the best in an opponent like the Coyotes or does it make an opponent blink?
One element that may be different for the Coyotes is they were a team without much playoff experience last season.
"Now they know the level they're going to have to get to in order to get the job done," Tippett told us Sunday.
5. Injuries: Good news for the Phoenix Coyotes: Martin Hanzal and Ed Jovanovski returned to the lineup in time for the playoffs. Hanzal is an underappreciated two-way center who often lines up against the opposing team's top lines, chips in valuable offense and kills penalties. Jovanovski provides veteran experience and some offense from the back end. Tippett said Jovanovski's past two games might have been his best two games of his season.
The Red Wings' lineup remains slightly murky when it comes to former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg, who missed the last two regular-season games with a lower-body injury. His status for the start of the playoffs is unknown. Can the Wings beat Phoenix without one of their two glimmer twins up front (Pavel Datsyuk just returned to the lineup himself)? Perhaps.
The other key person missing from Detroit's lineup is defenseman Niklas Kronwall (upper-body injury), although he is expected back for Game 1. But veteran netminder Chris Osgood's return from sports hernia surgery has been slowed, so minor league netminder Joey MacDonald is the safety net behind sophomore Jimmy Howard.
• Nicklas Lidstrom versus Keith Yandle: An interesting clash between the man they call Mr. Norris and Yandle, one of the next generation of defensemen eager to make their mark. If Yandle can chip in some offense (he was Phoenix's second-leading scorer and third among all defensemen) and eat up minutes, he will help the Coyotes stay close.
Last postseason, Lidstrom shook off a so-so regular season and was by most accounts the best player on the ice during the Phoenix/Detroit seven-game set. The 40-year-old veteran has had another exemplary season and is our pick to win the Norris Trophy as he finished second among defensemen in points. His continued ability to avoid physical contact while continuing to make smart, flawless outlet passes and get shots to the net on offense reinforces his position as one of the greatest defensemen of all time.
• Detroit: We have a soft spot for Daniel Cleary, the hard-working, do-it-all winger for Detroit. He shook off a couple of injuries this season to record a career-best 26 goals. He can kill penalties, work the power play and provide even-strength production. Two years ago, he had 15 postseason points and was plus-17 for the Wings. Want a hard-working hero? Cleary is your man.
• Phoenix: Remember when Radim Vrbata chased the money to Tampa Bay and things went so disastrously wrong the Lightning sent him home to the Czech Republic? Neither does Vrbata, who returned to Phoenix before last season and seems to have rediscovered his game. His real importance in this series will be on the power play, where he delivered 10 goals.
• We wish we had as much faith as Tippett's boys do, but we don't. Too much Detroit here. Red Wings in seven.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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