It took all 82 games to decide, but the Phoenix Coyotes beat the odds to capture their first division title in franchise history and lock up the number three seed in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Coyotes will play the six seed Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, a team they played well against this year. The Coyotes won three out of the four regular-season contest against the Blackhawks.
The Coyotes will be looking to do something the franchise has not done since they moved to the Valley; win a playoff series and advance to the second round. In the teams previous two playoff trips the Coyotes were bounced from the playoffs by a veteran laden Detroit Red Wings team, including a disappointing four game sweep in 2011.
The Coyotes were only 46 seconds away from meeting the Red Wings for a third consecutive year, but a late goal in the final game of the season forced overtime and gave Detroit the single point they needed to lock up the fifth seed.
The 'Yotes are entering their third straight postseason on fire, winning their last five games. The catalyst in all those wins was Mike Smith. Smith only let two pucks past him during the five game streak and is playing the best hockey of his career.
Chicago has a nice streak of their own going entering the playoffs. The Hawks have lost only two games in regulation since the beginning of March.
The Coyotes may be the higher seed in this matchup, but it is hard to imagine that they have a distinct advantage in the series. Chicago is a team that is loaded with young talent and are only two years removed from winning the cup. The Coyotes have proved that they can run with the top teams in the Western Conference, but will this be the year the Coyotes finally break through?
The Coyotes are led by Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan up front, but the team is built off distributed scoring.
The pairing of Whitney and Vrbata has worked wonders for coach Dave Tippett. The wizard Whitney joined the 1,000 point club and Vrbata put away a career high 35 goals, 12 that were game winners.
Offseason acquisition Raffi Torres has not only brought depth to the Coyotes bench, but also grit. Torres is not scared to throw his body around or drop the gloves to get his teammates going. And you know the former Canuck has to be hungry for a cup after losing in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals last year.
The Blackhawks have five players who eclipsed the 20-goal mark, but one of those players is captain Jonathan Toews who has not played since mid-February due to a concussion. While Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane have picked up the slack in Toews absence, his health is probably the biggest wild card in this matchup.
The captain Toews is expected to suit up for game one, but nothing has been confirmed by the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks averaged just a shade under three goals a game at 2.94, while the Coyotes averaged only 2.56.
Both teams rank in the bottom five in power play effectiveness, not a staple of championship caliber teams. The Coyotes rank 29th and the Hawks 26th.
The Coyotes have been strong along the blue line all year. Former first round pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson has played with veteran-like savvy despite being only 20-years-old and all-star Keith Yandle has continued to be one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman. Yandle and OEL combined for 75 points this year.
The Blackhawks have a strong first defensive paring with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook patrolling the blue line, but after that they are a little thin. The addition of Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline has helped out the Blackhawks, but defense is not the teams forte. They need to score goals to win games.
The lack of defense has shown on the penalty kill for the Hawks. Chicago has struggled with a man in the box, ranking 27th on the penalty kill. The Coyotes rank eighth.
Not enough can be said of the job Mike Smith has done in net for the Coyotes. Smith has had a career season between the pipes, putting up 38 wins and recording eight shutouts.
There is little doubt that Smith is the hottest goaltender going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Smith is coming off a record-threatening shutout streak and five straight victories. The Coyotes would not be in the position they are in without Smith in net.
It is a much different situation for Chicago. Neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery got the nod as the clear number one goaltender, but it looks like Crawford will get the start against the 'Yotes.
Both goalies have struggled and have posted very similar numbers. Emery and Crawford both have goals-against average in the 2.80 range, and a save percentages that sit at about the .900 mark.
How the Coyotes will win
The Coyotes are not an offensive juggernaunt, but they will not have to be if Smith keeps up his stellar play in net. Smith put the team on his back, and it is why they are in the playoffs. Don't expect it to be any different in the postseason. As long as the layoff between the end of the regular season and Thursday's game did not extinguish the fire in Smith's crease, the Coyotes will have an edge to win the series.
Offensively for the Coyotes, Vrbata and Whitney are natural scorers and will find their way onto the scoresheet. They won't be able to do it alone though. If the Coyotes can get contributions from Lauri Korpikoski, Martin Hanzal and Taylor Pyatt, who all heated up during the Coyotes five-game streak to end the season, the Coyotes will make it much easier for themselves.
Another thing the Coyotes will have to do is shut down the Blackhawks top scorers. Kane, Sharp and Hossa are all threats to score whenever they are on the ice. Veterans like Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsíval will have to step up on the defensive and put a body on the Blackhawks scorers early and often.
The most worrisome thing for the Coyotes may be something they cannot control. This time last year rumors began to surface of the team relocating. It seemed almost imminent that the franchise would move back to WInnipeg, and players admitted that the distraction of relocation was a very real thing. You cannot put all the blame for the sweep against the Red Wings on that, but there is no doubt it played a role. Hopefully the NHL will do their best to keep the rumors under wraps until the playoffs are over.
Final prediction: Coyotes in 6 games