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Coyotes return to playoffs against Red Wings

by Staff

At first blush, this looks like the NHL's brash, new kids on the block looking to mess with a legend in the playoffs. But let's go a bit deeper.

There is no doubt the Coyotes are the NHL's surprise team this season, rising from a murky future in bankruptcy court last summer to becoming a strong and inspiring team. But it is a squad that GM Don Maloney added a fair share of veteran talent to, so the Coyotes aren't pups.

And the legendary Red Wings have been a team taking on a younger look this season, but fair's fair, and a lot of the cogs from Motown's back-to-back Cup finalists remain in place. Still, the Red Wings recovered from a horrendous string of injuries late in the season to become a team no one wants to face in the playoffs.

So, what does this mean for hockey fans? A series that is closer than you might expect and one that has the potential to shock and awe.

The Coyotes won't wow anyone with their offensive arsenal -- their leading goal-scorer Radim Vrbata, had just 24 -- and they had just two players with at least 50 points. What the Coyotes do have is depth across all four lines. Nine forwards had at least 10 goals, and 10 had at least 20 points.

They also have Lee Stempniak, a revelation who scored 14 goals in his first 18 games after arriving at the trade deadline.

"I don't think anyone would have predicted that he'd be as good as he's been," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "But we knew how good he was capable of being, and he's been that and more. It's been a lot of fun to watch the ride that he's been on, and we want to keep him going for another two and a half months."

The statistics aren't as gaudy as they were in seasons' past for the Red Wings. Pavel Datsyuk's 27 goals led the club and Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg tied for the points lead at a pedestrian 69. Compare that to 2007-08, the last time the Wings won the Cup. Then, Datsyuk had 31 goals and 97 points and Zetterberg had netted 43 goals and 92 points. In addition, Johan Franzen had 27 goals, Dan Cleary 20, Tomas Holmstrom 20 and Valtteri Filppula 19.

Injuries conspired against the Wings' forward this season, with Franzen playing in just 27 games, Holmstrom 68 (still 25 goals), Filppula 55 and import Jason Williams 44. But the good news in Detroit is the start of the playoffs coincides with a return to health of the Wings' core group. Franzen's return was especially energizing for Datsyuk.

"We really feel the runs we've had over the last few years and our summers being short and our ability to train hasn't been as good," coach Mike Babcock said. "And I thought that affected us early and maybe helped with all the injuries we had. I believe that some of the guys that haven't played much hockey, whether that be Zetterberg … he had a good break. Williams had a good break. Filppula. Lilja. And Kronwall. Who else am I missing? Cleary. Lots of guys have had -- Franzen -- lots of guys have had long, long layoffs, they should be a lot fresher."

Todd Bertuzzi netted 18 in the regular season, Darren Helm had a productive 11, Patrick Eaves scored 12 and waiver pickup Drew Miller had 10 goals and 9 assists. So the numbers are not as startling as in seasons' past, but the hope in Detroit is the healthy forwards will have four rounds to strut their stuff.

Phoenix's top six is easy to overlook due to the outstanding play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, but its not goaltending alone that has the Coyotes allowing the fewest goals per game in the Western Conference.

Keith Yandle emerged as an anchor on the blue line, with 12 goals, 41 points and a plus-16 rating. Zbynek Michalek is a shot-blocking machine, and Ed Jovanovski and Adrian Aucoin are experienced veterans. Jovanovski also has 10 goals, and Aucoin has earned the nickname "The Closer" for his shootout prowess.

"You go through the defensemen and the blue lines that are going to be in the playoffs and I would put our blue line against anybody," Doan said.

Reports of Nicklas Lidstrom's demise were greatly exaggerated, although his offensive game dropped a bit to 9 goals and 40 assists. Still Lidstrom was, well, Lidstrom, playing over 25 minutes a game, going plus 21 and just being the giant security blanket he has been for all these years.

Brian Rafalski, 36, also saw a dip in offensive production (8 goals, 33 assists) but, like Lidstrom, his overall game remained strong with 24 minutes per game and a plus-22.

Brad Stuart was a fixture in the lineup all season and played 23 minutes per game. Brett Lebda has 63 games under his belt this season and Jonathan Ericsson had 62 games. Derek Meech was used in 49 games to fill in for injured defensemen like Niklas Kronwall (48 games) and Andreas Lilja (20 games). They spent a lot of the season watching because of injuries, but will nestle in nicely on the blue line come the start of the playoffs.

There's little doubt Bryzgalov is the Coyotes' most important player, and quite possibly will be a Hart Trophy finalist. His 42 wins are a single-season franchise record, he's was second in the League with eight shutouts, and he ranks in the top 10 in the NHL with a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

The goaltending torch has been passed to rookie Jimmy Howard, who used his four years of AHL seasoning to good effect. Howard wrested the job away from veteran Chris Osgood and on many nights was all  that stood between the injury-wrecked Wings and defeat. His 37-15-10 record, 2.26 goals-against average and .924 save percentage have him in the Calder Trophy discussion.

All Dave Tippett did was arrive a week before the start of the regular season and guide the Coyotes to the best season in franchise history. He's kept the focus on the ice and closed the dressing room to all the off-ice issues that have surrounded the franchise since the summer. He has to be the favorite for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's top coach this season.

Mike Babcock should also be mentioned in the talk about coach of the year honors this season for the job he did keeping a team that was admittedly in a transition season productive despite the influx of new faces and a long list of injuries. When the regular season was over, the Wings were in the playoffs for the 19th-straight season, reached 102 points, and were a team no one wanted to face in the first round.

Tippett's tactics are all over the improvements here. While the power play is only marginally better than last season -- it's converting at 14.6 percent efficiency, up from 14.5 -- the penalty kill has seen the greatest improvement, going from 76.8 percent (28th in the League) to 84.5 percent (sixth).

The Red Wings connected on a 19.2 percent average, ninth best in the League during the regular season. Considering all the players out with injuries and not having Marian Hossa this season, that's none too shabby. Killing penalties was the bane of Detroit's existence last season, but in 2009-10, the Red Wings were 10th in the NHL with an 83.9 percent success rate.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix -- Bryzgalov has proven to be a true No. 1 goaltender since coming over from the Anaheim Ducks in 2007-08, but really has blossomed this season, winning a career high 42 games and posting a 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Plus, he inspires great confidence among his teammates.

Johan Franzen, Detroit -- Knee surgery sent him to the long term injury list for 55 games and took a strong intangible out of the Red Wings' lineup. It's no coincidence that the Red Wings' rebirth this season coincided with "The Mule" rounding into form. Just 10 goals and 11 assists in 27 games won't win you the Hart Trophy, but Franzen is out for bigger game in the postseason.

Coyotes will win if... If Bryzgalov is lights out and the Coyotes continue to pay close attention to what got them here in the first place, namely Dave Tippett's system. The Coyotes don't have superstars, but they do win when embracing the team concept.

Red Wings will win if...  Like Phoenix, all the Red Wings need to do is continue the strong play that has followed them since the Olympic break. And avoid injuries, oh how Mike Babcock and Company want to avoid injuries at this late date. Staff Writers Phil Coffey and Adam Kimelman contributed to this report.

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