Path To The 2012 NHL Playoffs: Phoenix Coyotes Vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Phoenix Coyotes take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs, but how did the teams get to this point?

Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13, First place in Pacific Divsion, #3 seed)

The Coyotes started the year in rough waters, with the bad taste of a playoff sweep was still lingering. The franchise remained in the desert through the off-season, but the team was still without an owner. The Coyotes also saw their franchise goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov, leave for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Instead of Bryzgalov, the Coyotes were starting a guy by the name of Mike Smith in net. Not much was known about Smith and he sounded more like the guy next door than an NHL goaltender.

Little did anyone know that Smith would obliterate his career highs in nearly every category, set the NHL record for saves in a game and be the main catalyst in the Coyotes playoff run. Bryz who?

Smith was not the only newcomer to the Coyotes roster. Veterans Raffi Torres and Daymond Langkow would come over in the off-season, along with former Anaheim Duck Kyle Chipchura and Washington Capital Boyd Gordon.

The Coyotes first-round pick in the 2009 draft, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, would also become a full-time contributor on defense for the 'Yotes, after only playing 48 games in the previous season. The 20-year-old Ekman-Larsson would embrace his role and become one of the Coyotes top defenders through the year.

Despite the changes to the roster, the Coyotes were still looking very thin on offense. Kyle Turris had looked like promising prospect that could put the puck in the net, but he decided to holdout for a new contract. The holdout would last through January, and sour his relationship with the Coyotes organization. He would be shipped out shortly after signing a new deal to Ottawa for defenseman David Rundblad and a draft pick.

Who was left to fill up the score sheet? Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney? Whitney had already been playing in the NHL when teammate Ekman-Larsson was born, and Vrbata had never broken the 30 goal barrier in his career.

Both would end the season with career years, and Whitney would join a select group that only 78 other NHLers are a part of.

The first half of the Coyotes season was a nice surprise. The team was 24-16-9 entering the all-stat break and doing better than anyone expected, especially with the restrictions that not having an owner brought. Whitney and Vrbata were lighting up the score sheet, and Smith was already in the conversation as the teams MVP.

Still, the Western Conference was packed and the 'Yotes being an real playoff contender was still in question.

Then February rolled around.

The Coyotes would finish the month 11-0-1, the best month in franchise history. They were the leagues hottest team and the playoffs were just over a month away.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, they would come back to Earth in March. The team started the month with four straight losses, and opened the door for a heated playoff race.

Nearing the end of March six teams were batting for the final playoff spots. Three of those teams were out of the Pacific Division and the divisions title was no longer secured by San Jose, who held is for most of the year.

As the end of the season drew closer, Coyote fans were crossing their fingers that the team could hold on and make the playoffs.

This is where goaltender Mike Smith began to become a legitimate NHL star and not just another goalie.

The Coyotes would reel off five consecutive wins to end the season. Smith would only let in two goals in that span and record his sixth, seventh and eighth shutouts consecutively. During the three shutouts he faced 38, 44, and 54 shots.

Smith's 54 saves against Columbus in his final shutout became an NHL record for most saves in a regulation game.

Vrbata would finish the season with a career high 35 goals, and Ray Whitney, at the age of 39, would put up up the second best point total of his career with 77.

Whitney would also become the quietest member of the 1,000 point club during the season. The wizard Whitney did something only 78 other players in the history of the game had done, nearly unnoticed.

Behind the teams five-game streak to end the season the Coyotes rocketed up the standings, securing not only the number three seed, but also their first division title.

Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11, Fourth in Central Divsion, Sixth seed)

Don's let the Blackhawks sixth seed fool you.

Chicago was in what is arguably the toughest conference in the NHL. They finished the season with 101 points, which was good enough for only fourth in their division. That point total would have won the Pacific and Southeast Divisions handily.

The Hawks came into the season with something the Coyotes did not have; expectations.

Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp are all NHL stars. Not just elite players or prospects, but stars. Chicago is comprised of some of the best young talent the NHL has to offer, and they were only one year removed from hoisting the cup over their heads.

However, the Blackhawks had a disappointing end to their 2010-2011 season. After just barely sneaking into the playoffs, the team was knocked out by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round in seven games. Fans in the Windy City wanted banners, not first round knockouts.

The Hawks began the season as one of the Western Conference's power house teams, and sure contenders for the cup. This was all despite one of their key players being in a major rut.

For just over 20 games Kane could not find the back of the net. Kane would eventually break out of the slump, but Chicago had bigger problems on the horizon.

Starting from just before the all-star break, the Blackhawks would lose nine times in a row, with only one of those losses in overtime. The Hawks, a team that just a month earlier was sitting atop the Western Conference and tied for the NHL's best record, had slipped all the way to sixth in the west and were only three points away from falling out of a playoff spot.

To add to the Hawks problems their captain, Toews, was out with a lingering concussion symptoms and his return for the season was questionable.

The injury hit the Blackhawks hard, but they could not sit around and cry for their wounded captain. Their fourth straight postseason appearance was in jeopardy.

The Hawks would get on track after the losing streak, but their effort was only good enough to lock up the sixth seed. The St. Louis Blues came out of nowhere to win their division behind new coach Ken Hitchcock, while the Nashville Predators and perennial powerhouse Red Wings took the fifth and six seeds respectively.

Chicago had a chance to move up a seed and jump Detroit during the final game of the season when they were up 2-1 on the Red Wings with less than a minute to go, but a goal with 46 seconds left forced overtime and gave Detroit the one-point they needed to lock up the fifth seed.

The Hawks will now face the Coyotes in a showdown in the desert. Toews has reportedly been practicing with the first line, and is scheduled to make his return for game one. The return of the Hawks captain and 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner would surely kickstart Chicago, but there is nothing certain about injuries in the NHL.

The two teams paths cross at 7 p.m. April 12, at Jobing.com Arena.

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