It's go time in Glendale, with the Phoenix Coyotes ready to put their Pacific Division title to use hosting the Chicago Blackhawks for Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. We've already looked at the Blackhawks up and down, and we've assumed that you have a pretty good idea of what's going on with the Coyotes. After the jump, the crew takes a look at who might be the difference makers in the series and our predictions. Also, a bonus Five For Winning to get things started.
1. Aside from Mike Smith, who do you see as being the biggest x-factor in this series for the Phoenix Coyotes?
Dude, The: I think that the players with a history of going deep in the playoffs are going to be the biggest x-factor, and if I had to pick one I would have to go with Raffi Torres. I expect that two of the keys for the series are going physicality and getting the puck deep and that is Raffi Torres. Torres isn't going to be the entire physical presence of the Coyotes but I can see him leading it with a few hard checks early on to establish the feel of the series and he may get a few goals in there like he did last season with the Canucks, maybe even the game winner. Everyone says that playoff experience is important for this stretch and Torres has 53 games of experience including the 23 games he was playing last season with a team that went all the way to the finals.
Carl: Shane Doan. He's the heart and soul of the franchise. He was one of the rare players who showed up in the playoffs last season and the year before we saw what happens when he's not in the lineup in playoff games. His physical style of play is perfect for the playoffs and he's the best offensive weapon on the team outside of Whitney and Vrbata. He likely craves a series win more than any other player on both teams.
Travis: Likely one of the young guys stepping up. It's hard to chose between Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Mikkel Boedker here. Both have been playing well down the stretch and doing important things on the ice. I think the offense is going to have to come from unexpected places and they would fit the bill at the moment.
Jordan: I'm going with the two top scorers, Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata. As I discussed when looking at the forwards yesterday, the top line talent on Chicago is a bit stronger than the Coyotes. That being said, Whitney and Vrbata have put up points at a pace with any other of the top players this season. The question is, can they keep it going in the playoffs. Nobody mistakes Vrbata for a guy that goes into the dirty areas - he's an opportunistic sniper. In the postseason those opportunities become far less frequent. A lot will depend on the Wizard working his magic to find Vrbata and help these two keep up their torrid pace to lead the Coyotes.
2. Aside from Jonathan Toews, who do you see as being the biggest x-factor in this series for the Chicago Blackhawks?
Dude, The: Corey Crawford. Goaltenders are so important in this series, in fact a big part of the discussion of the game is that Smith is a better goaltender and that is what is going to help Phoenix win the series. On the other side though there is a lot of talk about Crawford's play as of late, the he has been good down the final stretch and the team has won with him in net. Crawford doesn't even really have to play great if Chicago's offense does what it is supposed to do, he won in regulation letting Nashville score 4, so potential as a goalie he doesn't have to be great, just good enough. If he is good enough he could be Chicago's real difference maker.
Carl: Dave Bolland. If Coach Q is able to match him up with Martin Hanzal's line consistently he could shut down the Coyotes' one true scoring line. This will force the other three lines to produce in order for Phoenix to win the series. That is a scary proposition given the inconsistent offensive play of the Dogs other three lines. In addition, Bolland isn't too shabby offensively come the postseason either.
Travis: I'll go with the other big part of the offense in Patrick Kane. Both he and Toews are going to see a lot of time matched up against the Hanzal line. He's one of a few guys that could take over the series if the Coyotes aren't careful.
Jordan: Patrick Sharp. He had a career year, is playing extremely well coming into the playoffs filling the gap left by the absence of Toews. I've loved Sharp for a loooooong time since he was a rookie in Philly and while I'm happy for all the success he's had, I wouldn't be at all upset if he just has a nice quiet few games here. I fear that it is not going to be the case, though.
3. Who wins the series and in how many games?
Dude, The: Coyotes in 6. I see them coming out strong and getting the first two at home and carrying some of that momentum and winning in Chicago. Chicago has a comeback with a pair of wins, but then we come back and with the 6th game.
Carl: Winning the Pacific Division title got Phoenix home ice advantage. It's going to come in handy. Coyotes in 7.
Travis: Coyotes in 5. - Toews comes back and while his talent is still there, the rust shows. Smith outshines Crawford and the Coyotes move on for the first time in ever.
Jordan: I have no idea, really. If Mike Smith locks in, the Coyotes are going to win; if the Blackhawks can create some cracks in Smith's armor and the offense disappears the way they did in the beginning of March, it's not going to be pretty. I don't think either team is winning this one walking away. I'll take the Coyotes in 7.
Five For Winning Game 1:
1. Score First. The Coyotes are just not the same team when they have a lead and when they are chasing a game. They've shown that they can play the comeback game terrifically, but it's not what they want to do.
2. Limit the Shots. The Hawks have peppered Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera with a ton of shots in each game. The Coyotes played two strong puck possession games to end the season - they need to keep building on that,.
3. Win the Special Teams Battle. Simply put, don't let the Hawks power play unit find any success and take advantage of the opportunities that you get.
4. Ignore the Distractions. It will be interesting to see if there are more "rumors" that mysteriously start swirling about deadlines and moves and everything else tomorrow. The good news, Mike Smith is not an Ilya Bryzgalov head case and even if anything is thrown out there it should stay far away from the performance on the ice.
5. Play Off the Crowd. It's going to be loud, it's going to be crazy and it's going to be white. The Coyotes need to feed off the energy, jump off to a rocking start and never look back. They are well rested and there's no excuses now - leave it all on the ice!