After 82 games, after all the head-scratching, after all the jumps to conclusion in October, after all the calls for Stan Bowman and/or Joel Quenneville to be fired, after every core player was deemed trade able, the Blackhawks finished with 101 points, 1 point behind the Detroit Red Wings and 3 points behind the unbeatable Nashville Predators for the 5th best finish in the Western Conference.
As a reward, they draw the Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes in the first round. As many have already said, it is better than the alternative of facing Detroit or Nashville in the first round. That’s not to say it’s going to be easy because Phoenix has a significant advantage in net and in the playoffs, it’s a big thing.
However, the Hawks are better than Phoenix in every other facet of the game. They are deeper offensively and deeper defensively. They are more talented and more playoff-tested. Other than the addition of Antoine Vermette and the maturation of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, this Coyotes team (of course substituting Mike Smith with Bryzgalov) is essentially the same squad that was swept out of last year’s playoff by a Detroit team that isn’t as strong as this year’s Hawks.
When it comes to these low talent level, maximum effort, “system” type teams like the Coyotes, the regular season is a much easier hurdle to clear than the monotony of playing the same team for two weeks. A big reason why they’re able to rack up as many points as they do is because a) they sneak up on teams that don’t bring their top effort during the doldrums of the regular season and b) opposing teams don’t have the luxury of centering their entire game plan around one team for one game. That’s the biggest reason why teams like Predators, Coyotes, and soon to be the Blues struggle to win more than a round in the playoffs against significantly deeper and more talented teams.
That’s not to say it’s going to be a cakewalk for the Blackhawks. It’s probably going to take a few games for them to figure out the best way to navigate their way through the neutral zone and how to keep Mike Smith firmly in his crease. After the riddle is solved, though, it should only be a matter of games before they move on to the next round.
Unless, of course, Corey Crawford thinks its December, Mike Smith channels his inner Curtis Joseph, and the Coyotes get a ton of puck luck. Then, anything can happen.