Detroit and Phoenix produced one of the most entertaining series of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and those two franchises will renew acquaintances in the opening round for a second straight spring. The Coyotes pushed the two-time defending Western Conference champions to a seventh game before the Red Wings humbled the Coyotes with a 6-1 win in Phoenix.
The Red Wings were back atop the Central Division in 2010-11 after not finishing first in their division for the first time in nine seasons a year ago. Detroit's Jimmy Howard spent the entire season as the undisputed No. 1 goaltender and Nicklas Lidstrom may have completed his seventh Norris Trophy-winning campaign.
The Coyotes used a similar formula from a season ago -- lots of hard work, scoring by committe and great goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. Keith Yandle has been a breakout star on the blue line. Expect plenty of white shirts at Jobing.com Arena.
Phoenix has yet to win a playoff series since moving to Arizona from Winnipeg. Detroit has looked vulnerable down the stretch -- could Coyotes get their revenge?
Up and down the lineup, Detroit has forwards that are dangerous on both ends of the ice. The first to come to mind are always Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, but the Red Wings have three legitimate scoring lines and a grinding fourth line with the ability to be dangerous in the offensive zone.
The Red Wings pride themselves on a puck-possession game and they do it well because all of their forwards are conscientious of their defensive responsibilities. They take their cues from Datsyuk and Zetterberg, who are two of the finest two-way forwards in the game.
Franzen finished as the Wings leading goal scorer with 28 and Danny Cleary had a career-best 26, but beyond that Detroit had 11 forwards reach double-digits in goals this season. Zetterberg was clearly their best forward from start to finish and he led the team with 80 points before sitting out the final two games of the season with injury. Coach Mike Babcock said he doesn't expect Zetterberg to be ready for Game 1.
It would be disingenuous to imply that the Coyotes have one of the more dangerous offenses in the League. Phoenix averages 2.76 goals per game, which is very much in the middle of the NHL pack. Rather, the Coyotes have managed to secure a second consecutive playoff berth by getting consistent scoring throughout the lineup. It might just be that versatility and depth that makes Phoenix dangerous this spring. The longest-tenured Coyote, Shane Doan, leads the team in scoring with just 20 goals. That total isn't eye-catching, but Phoenix has eight forwards who have scored more than 15 goals this season -- as many as Vancouver and more than Washington, Pittsburgh.
Radim Vrbata has had a career year with 19 goals and 48 points while Lauri Korpikoski and Lee Stempniak have developed into dependable contributors as well. Ray Whitney, who not only has championship experience but also tied Doan for the most assists among the forwards this season, is the veteran leader any playoff team needs.
All told, Phoenix has a group that, while unspectacular, is capable of getting points and doesn't mind passing the puck around to get the job done. While only of the team's forwards reached 20 goals, five have more than 20 helpers.
Lidstrom may be 41 years old, but he played in 81 games and finished No. 2 among defensemen with 62 points on 16 goals and 46 assists. His goals put him tied for fourth among all NHL defensemen and his assists were good for third place.
Three-time Cup winner Brian Rafalski, who had 43 assists and 47 points in 62 games, is still one of the League's premier puck-moving defenseman at 37 years old. Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart are bruisers who complement the Wings talented forwards with their ability to join the rush and be physical at the same time.
Kronwall missed some time toward the end of the regular season, but should be good to go for Game 1.
Jonathan Ericsson and Ruslan Salei were both plus players who contributed more than 17 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season. The Wings aren't afraid to use 24-year-old rookie Jakub Kindl, who averaged close to 14 minutes of ice time per game in his 47 appearances this season.
Yandle is the obvious starting point for Phoenix on the blue line. He’s continued his steady climb to be one of the premier offensive defensemen in the League. After 30 and 41 points in his first two full seasons, Yandle broke out for 59 points in 2010-11, good for third among NHL defensmen, keeping company with future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom.
Beyond Yandle there is a sturdy group of prototypical defensemen to keep offenses at bay. Veteran blueliner Adrian Aucoin leads the team with a plus-18 rating; but he's hardly alone in that regard. Phoenix only has one defenseman with any significant playing time this season with a negative plus-minus, and even then, Derek Morris' mark is only a minus-2.
The Coyotes also got a boost for the postseason when Ed Jovanovski returned in the final week after being out since February with multiple orbital bone fractures.
Yet, even with the addition of Jovanovski, there is one significant department in which the team’s defensive corps is lacking. The Coyotes' seven defensemen have played a combined total of more than 4,500 NHL games and have zero Stanley Cups between them.
Jimmy Howard has established himself as the Red Wings goalie of the present as much as he is their goalie of the future. Howard received a well-earned two-year contract extension with a raise in late February for being the rock in the Red Wings net since about the middle of November last season.
Howard played in 63 games this season and won 37 of them. He finished with a 2.79 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. Howard's numbers weren't as good as they were last season, when he finished with a 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage, but the fact is he's won 73 of 125 games for the Red Wings since taking over as the No. 1 goalie last season.
There are some question marks beyond Howard. Chris Osgood hasn't played since Jan. 4 due to sports hernia surgery and a groin injury, and Joey MacDonald is a career backup/minor leaguer who has never played in a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
After his breakout 42-win campaign a year ago, Ilya Bryzgalov has shown that his impressive 2009-10 season was no fluke. This season Bryzgalov has posted a strong 36-20-10 mark in 68 games while placing in the League's top ten in wins, saves and shutouts.
But unlike Cup champion goaltenders that played behind a stingy defense – New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur during his Cup runs and Antti Niemi with Chicago last year pop to mind - Bryzgalov sees plenty of rubber each time he hits the ice. Phoenix allowed 32.6 shots per game this season, the third most in the League.
While Jason LaBarbera has given Bryzgalov the occasional day off, it would seem unlikely that the No. 1 goalie wouldn’t see all the action in the postseason. Because of that, and his resume, Bryzgalov will be a huge factor and it is likely Phoenix will only go as far as its goalie can take it. Perhaps more than any other player on the team, the pressure will be on Bryzgalov to put forth the type of performance necessary for a deep playoff run – a run that could lift him into the discussion of the NHL's top goalies and earn him a lot of money as an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has been one of the most successful coaches in the game since the work stoppage. He owns a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal while also taking the Red Wings back to the Cup Final in 2009 after they won in 2008. Babcock has the finger on the pulse of his team and relies on his veterans to get the job done. He's rarely has to crack the whip.
Dave Tippett has already proven his value NHL coach by taking a team that was expected to miss out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago and instead leading it to the third-highest point total in the West. Tippett reaffirmed his place as one of the better coaches in the game by again leading Phoenix to the playoffs this season. However, with the novelty of postseason play gone, many fans in the desert are likely to expect more than last season's first-round knockout by Detroit. While that won't be easy, Tippett has shown the ability to take a lower-seeded team deep after leading fifth-seeded Dallas to the Western Conference Finals in 2008.
Detroit had the NHL's fifth-best power play this season, connecting 22.3 percent of the time. Lidstrom and Zetterberg were among the top power-play scorers. Lidstrom was third in points (39) and second in assists (32) in the League. Zetterberg's 30 power-play points were among the Top 15 totals in the League. The Wings had 14 players score at least one power-play goal. Their penalty kill was middle of the road, finishing No. 17 in the League with an 82.3 percent success rate. Detroit was one of the least penalized teams in the League.
Staying out of the box will prove key if Phoenix is to have a good chance at advancing in the postseason. The Coyotes' penalty kill has struggled, finishing with a 78.4 percent rate, good for 26th in the League. In addition, the Phoenix will need to show more ability to score with the extra man, something they only did 15.9 percent of the time this season.
Johan Franzen, Detroit -- He has played some of his best hockey in the playoffs. Franzen has scored 35 goals and 34 assists in 75 career playoff games, including 31 and 28 for 59 points in 51 games during the past three springs.
Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix -- The old axiom that a hot goalie can steal a playoff series is definitely in play in this series. Bryzgalov is talented enough to pull it off; but the heavy workload the Russian netminder handled this season could also come into play. Simply, Bryzgalov will have to be on top of his game for Phoenix to have the best chance of advancing.
Red Wings will win if... They're able to force their style of play early in the series and keep the puck in the offensive zone for extended periods of time. The Wings have a strong defensive corps and Howard is solid in net, but they are able to control games when they control the puck.
Coyotes will win if... Bryzgalov continues to play as he has all season and gets the necessary help from his forwards. Yandle will no doubt provide a boost from the blue line, but Phoenix's forwards will have put the puck in the net regularly to ease the burden on their goalie.