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Coyotes ready for their next challenge: the playoffs

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. – To the rest of the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings were the team no one wanted to face in the first round of the playoffs. But the Phoenix Coyotes, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2002, weren't in any mood to grouse over their opponent.

To a man, the response was: Let's drop the puck and play hockey.

"We haven't been given anything easy all season and we've managed to overcome every hurdle,” center Vernon Fiddler said after the Coyotes began playoff preparations with a one-hour practice. "I think people in this room relish the chance to clear another hurdle. Everything happens for a reason. Maybe playing Detroit is something that will bring us even closer together. Let's see what happens."

The two-time Western Conference champion Red Wings finished the season as the hottest team in the NHL, winning 16 of 21 post-Olympic games and going 13-1-2 in their last 16 games. But Phoenix didn't exactly limp down the stretch themselves, going 13-4-2 despite playing 11 of their final 16 games on the road and with little to play for over the final week.

The Coyotes won a franchise-record 29 home games including the final seven and have home ice in the series, which begins Wednesday at Arena. They split four games wit the Red Wings during the season, with both Phoenix wins coming in overtime, including a 5-4 thriller on Jan. 26 in Detroit when the Coyotes rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the final 1:30 of regulation and won on a Shane Doan goal.

"We're a difficult team to play against," said veteran defenseman Mathieu Schneider, who spent three-plus seasons and played more than 30 Stanley Cup Playoff games with Detroit from 2002-07 before joining Phoenix at the trade deadline. "If we play our system, we're capable of winning every night. No lead is safe against us. Detroit is a team you can say the same thing about.

"It's no fluke when you get over 100 points in this league in an 82-game schedule. We earned home ice and we earned our chance to advance."

Another ex-Wing, Robert Lang missed the final 16 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury but took part in a complete practice Monday and said he expects to contribute in the series.

"This was kind of the goal all the way, to get as close to 100-percent as I could for the playoffs," said Lang, who has 18 goals and 45 points in his 87-game postseason career. "I would say I'm pretty much there. The legs feel great. Now it's up to what the coaches say."

Detroit is led by elite scorers Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg  Johan Franzen and defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, but Tomas Holmstrom and his ability to plant himself in the crease – especially on the power play – will be among the Coyotes' top defensive priorities leading up to Game 1.

"It's something we have to talk a look at because he's really good around the net and he has played with guys like Lidstrom and Rafalski for a long time," Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "He gets in the right spot and it's hard to deal with him. Do we take away time and space or just leave him alone and let (goalie Ilya Brzgalov) deal with him? We'll have to see how we attack it."

Detroit rookie Jimmy Howard has had a strong season for Detroit, but the Coyotes feel like they have an edge with Bryzgalov, who won 42 games and is a strong Vezina Trophy candidate, between the pipes.

"The guys up front can steal a game or two if you have a great night on the power play or score a lot of goals," Lang said. "But if you want to go anywhere in the postseason, and if you want to do any damage, your goalie has to lead the way. He has to be your best player. And our goalie has been our best player from day one. We all have a lot of confidence in him."

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