Most hockey people will tell you that the NHL postseason is fairly wide open this year. You can make a reasonable case for any of the remaining teams to go all the way. Seriously, ANY of them (well, OK, not any of them. That would be a little ridiculous now wouldn’t it? A couple teams in the east are primed to make quick exits, but you get the point). It’s a good year to be an up-and-comer because top contenders like Washington, Chicago and San Jose remain relatively unproven in the postseason and perennial powerhouses like Pittsburgh and Detroit have played so many additional games over the last two seasons that it’s bound to catch up with at least one of them at some point.
| Photo by Norm Hall |
Enter: the Coyotes - the definition of “up-and-comer.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched my expectations for this group change over the last six months. Coming out of that emotionally draining offseason, I certainly saw them as a playoff team but can’t say I expected the fourth best record in the entire NHL. With so many new pieces, fans naturally wondered - especially considering what was on the line thanks to off-the-ice issues. But this group has grown more from October to April than any other team in hockey. And it’s not by accident. Look, every team changes over the course of 82 games, but this was the equivalent of a kid not knowing what to expect on his first day of school, then graduating with his pilot’s license by the end of kindergarten. The progression was remarkable and the best part is that the fans have been able to get in on the ground level and grow with the team.
Of course, to make a name for yourself in this league, you have to go through the Detroit Red Wings – a polarizing team who most hockey fans either love (i.e. they’re from Michigan) or hate (i.e. they’re from anywhere else on the planet). Granted, you don’t usually have to go through them in Round One but those are the breaks. Blame a slow start by Detroit and the fact that the Coyotes are in a conference where 107 points somehow isn’t good enough to warrant a top-three spot. Regardless, the stakes went up the second Brad Stuart scored on Sunday afternoon to bring the Red Wings to town. Detroit is a well known commodity and getting them in the opening series takes a Coyotes team whose on-ice accomplishments have flown relatively under the radar and thrusts them directly into the spotlight of North American hockey. It’s probably a more difficult opening matchup than they deserve (for casual hockey fans, imagine if the Diamondbacks had to play the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs back in 2001), but it also gives them the opportunity to do something great. If they continue to play their game – as they’ve consistently done all year – every neutral fan across this country will be pulling for the hockey team from Arizona to take down Goliath.
|Photo by Getty Images |
Make no mistake - the Red Wings are arguably the hottest team in the entire league right now (15-2-2 down the stretch) and there isn’t a more playoff tested bunch around. But Phoenix isn’t exactly a team that people want to line up against either. Sure, the casual Red Wings enthusiast has the innate ability to come off as arrogant and probably feels their team will coast through to the conference finals, but the fans who actually know what a hockey puck looks like – and, more importantly, the Detroit players - are well aware that this Coyotes team not only warrants respect, it commands it. Think logically: would you want to play a seven-game series with Phoenix? They’re 17-10-5 against the other Western playoff teams this season, extremely successful and experienced in tight games, grasp the concept of what a “team” Is better than 99 percent of professional athletes, and run Head Coach Dave Tippett’s system well enough to generally dictate the flow of a game. In six meetings with the Sharks this year, the two teams combined for a TOTAL of 19 goals. Think a team with Dany Heatley, joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and about 900 other offensive weapons wants to play 2-1 games? To top it off, strong coaching and goaltending are the keys to playoff success. Is there anyone you’d rather have in those roles than Tippett – a virtual lock to win the Jack Adams - and Ilya Bryzgalov – a frontrunner for the Vezina and one of three starting goalies left in the West with playoff experience?
Regardless of what happens from here on out, this Coyotes team will go down in franchise history and be remembered by future generations of Coyote fans for all the right reasons. But everyone in that locker room will tell you the job is far from finished. And sure, the Red Wings might be the most difficult first-round opponent Phoenix could possibly have drawn. But considering what this team has fought through over the past year, would you really have it any other way? The regular season is officially over. Now the fun starts…