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BLACKHAWKS (45-26-11) at COYOTES (42-27-13)
TV: TSN, NBCSN, RDS, CSN-CH (HD), FS-A+ (HD)
Last 10 : Chicago 6-1-3; Phoenix 7-1-2
Season Series: The Coyotes managed to win three of four against the Blackhawks this season, including their most recent meeting, a 3-0 shutout victory at Jobing.com Arena on Feb. 11.
Big Story: Though they finished with more points than the Coyotes, the Hawks will head for the desert to play the Pacific Division champions in the first two games of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
Blackhawks: Even though Chicago wrapped up a fourth consecutive playoff berth, the Blackhawks have been missing something -- or rather someone. Captain Jonathan Toews has been sidelined since Feb 19 with what is believed to be a concussion. But Toews went through a symptom-free practice on Wednesday and hopes to be in the lineup for Game 1.
"That's the goal we've set," Toews said Wednesday when asked if he'd play in Game 1, "but we're going to make that decision tomorrow. We're sticking to that program."
Having Toews back in the lineup would be a tremendous boost for the Hawks, who start the postseason seeking their second Cup in three seasons. Chicago has won six of its last 10 games, but appearances may be deceiving. The Hawks haven't won in regulation since March 20, and there have been bumps -- the team lost both ends of a home-and-home to Minnesota in shootouts before ending the season by blowing a 2-0 lead before topping Detroit in another tiebreaker on Saturday.
Coyotes: For much of the season's final stretch, the Coyotes were stuck in the Pacific shuffle, as four of the division's five teams took turns at first place. But a season-ending five-game winning streak, including back-to-back wins at St. Louis and Minnesota on the final two nights of the season, gave Phoenix its first division title since the franchise entered the NHL in 1979 as the original Winnipeg Jets.
A major reason for that hot streak has been the incredible play of goalie Mike Smith, who allowed just two games during the season-ending winning streak and went 9-1-3 in his final 13 starts. He hasn't lost in regulation since March 15, nearly a month ago, and at one point had three consecutive shutouts despite seeing an average of 45.33 shots per game.
The Coyotes' next task is to win a playoff series for the first time in 25 years.
"We've never won a playoff series, but we'd never won a division either," captain Shane Doan said. "It's something you can't wait to have the opportunity to answer. We have home ice and if we can win four of the next seven games we can put that stuff to bed as well."
Who's Hot: Few players in the League have been hotter than former-Blackhawk Radim Vrbata, who has five goals in the Coyotes' last five games. ... Patrick Kane had three goals and three assists in Chicago's last five games.
Injury Report: In addition to the potential return of Toews, Dave Bolland (upper-body injury) and Andrew Brunette (lower-body injury) are both probable for the Blackhawks. … Defenseman Adrian Aucoin, who did not play in the Coyotes' last two games due to undisclosed reasons, is listed as probable.
Stat Pack : There may not be a series featuring two hotter teams in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs. Chicago and Phoenix combined to go 13-2-5 over the last 10 games of the season, the best combined mark of any two first-round opponents.
Puck Drop: The Coyotes are rated as underdogs, but they've played the Hawks well in the three seasons since Dave Tippett took over as coach. In three playing Tippett's aggressive, responsible and demanding style, Phoenix is 8-3-1 against the Blackhawks and has outscored Chicago 32-26 (including shootouts).
"We've been laughing after someone told us we were the longest odds to win the Cup," Doan said. "Those are the same people who picked us [to finish] 14th in the West before the season -- and here we are."