The puck drops at 7 p.m, Thursday, at Jobing.com Arena as the Phoenix Coyotes kick off their first round matchup of the 2012 NHL playoff with the Chicago Blackhawks, but what are some of the key matchups to watch for?
Jonathan Toews Vs. Post-concussion symptoms
The first matchups to watch for is taking place off the ice. Blackhawks captain, Toews, has not taken the ice with his team since Feb. 19. The 23-year-old Toews missed the last 22 games of the regular season and his skills and leadership were missed by his teammates.
Even Vegas sees the difference Toews makes on the ice. If Toews suits up, the Blackhaws are a 7-5 favorite to advance. Without him in the lineup, that drops severely, so much that the Coyotes are the favorites.
"As a young hockey player, you have a certain level of invincibility where you don't think that far down the road, but you have to be careful," Toews said. "The biggest thing I'm worried about is my game ready to go and is my conditioning there. If all those things fall into place, then I won't be risking the fact that this might happen again."
Mike Smith Vs. Blackhawks top scorers
Smith is entering the postseason on fire. The Coyotes net minder put the team on his back as they reeled of five-conseutive wins to conclude the season, which included a scoreless stretch of 234:25 and a 54-save performance in a win over Columbus.
Smith has also not dropped a game against Chicago this year, going 3-0. The Coyotes only loss against the Blackhawks came with Jason LaBarbera in net.
"The biggest thing has been getting the opportunity to play, win or lose, is not having to worry about when I'm going to get my next start, but worrying about the game I'm playing in," Smith said.
Smith may have cemented his place as a starter on a playoff team, but during the series he will have several NHL stars gunning to get the puck by him.
Hossa is the oldest of the bunch, but is having his best year since 2007, tallying a team high 77 points. Sharp is next in line with a team-high 33 goals, and Kane finished with 23 goals and 66 total points, despite a major goal drought that lasted until just about the all-star break. Toews, who only played 59 games, finished the regular season tied for second on the team with 29 goals.
Smith will have his hands full, but he has proven this year that he is among the league's top talents in net. Expect Smith to continue his stellar game in net, but the Coyotes have to be wary of giving the Blackhawks goal scorers too many chances.
If the Coyotes hope to win their first series in franchise history they will have to get scoring from players who don't have Whitney, Vrbata or Doan sewn on the back of their jerseys.
Martin Hanzal, Lauri Korpikoski and Taylor Pyatt all came on strong at the end of the season to give the Coyotes support upfront and they will have to continue to contribute in the playoffs. The trio of Whitney, Vrbata and Doan combined for 81 of the Coyotes regular season goals, nearly 40 percent.
It looks like Crawford will get the start in net after playing well down the stretch for the Hawks; however, he is probably on the shortest leash among playoff goalies. If Crawford lets in some early, weak goals, or the Blackhawks are not winning, do not be surprised to see Emery get the nod from coach Joel Quenneville.
There will be plenty of opportunity for the Coyotes to light the lamp on the Blackhawk's shaky situation in net, but they will have to capitalize on those chances.
Torres came over to the Coyotes in the off-season from the Canucks and brought his gritty game with him. Another thing Torres brought over with him is his rivalry with the Blackhawk's top defender, Seabrook.
In game three of the Canucks series with the Blackhawks in 2011, Raffi Torres delivered this devastating hit to Seabrook. Seabrook would return, but it was obvious he was not the same player. Keep an eye out for Seabrook to try and settle the score, or Torres being Torres and doing a little extra antagonizing to the defenseman.
NHL: Raffi Torres Hit on Brent Seabrook Game 3 4/17/11