Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 4/10/12

Playoff hockey begins this week, and if you’re from the Midwest you have a healthy dose of NHL teams to watch and root for.

Four of the five teams from the NHL Central have made the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Detroit, Nashville, Chicago, and St. Louis), all of whom garnered 100+ points during the regular season, which shouldn’t be understated.

Yesterday Pete previewed the intriguing 4-5 series between Nashville and Detroit, but if you want to watch the best and most exciting series featuring teams from the Midwest you’ll watch the playoff series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Phoenix Coyotes.

Chicago Blackhawks-Phoenix Coyotes TV Schedule

Chicago Blackhawks-Phoenix Coyotes Preview

I honestly think the 1-2-1 record the Blackhawks had against the Coyotes during the regular season is pretty meaningless to bring up when talking about how this playoff series will go. These teams haven’t played each other since Feb. 11th and both teams were in different states at the times.

Almost everything would virtually have to be the same for the regular season record to matter, and with sports that rarely ever happens.

Instead, I see a more interesting story in varying style of play these teams posses.

Forwards

The Blackhawks are 2nd in the Western Conference, behind only Vancouver, in the amount of goals scored (248). The ‘Hawks are built to score. Five forwards on the team scored 20+ goals during the regular season compared to Phoenix’s three, who only managed as a whole team to score 216 goals during the season.

The upper hand here has to go to the ‘Hawks.

When you have players such as Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and, hell, I’ll even include Viktor Stalberg, as offensive threats, you’re a favorite in the offense category nine times out of ten. The return of Toews to the lineup after missing 22 straight games due to a concussion, and whether or not he’s going to be effective in this series, is one of the biggest questions facing this ‘Hawks team.

Phoenix’s top three forwards, Shane Doen, Radim Vrbata, and Ray Whitney, add consistency and experience to the Coyotes’ offense. There is a considerable drop after those three, so Phoenix is going to need some bottom-line offensive production, something that has been lacking, for them to win this series.

 

Defensemen

Though the ‘Hawks have been good at scoring goals, they’ve also been pretty good at letting goals in as well. Out of all the playoff teams in the Western Conference, the ‘Hawks have let in the most goals (238) and have the worst goal differential (+10). This doesn’t bode very well for the ‘Hawks’ playoff chances, and it’s been a problem mainly because of the lack of consistency in the defensemen.

The ‘Hawks’ defense has improved since the trade deadline, but it’s still a question of whether that will continue.

The defense has been the strength for Phoenix all season long. There’s not much offense in the defense past Keith Yandle, but it won’t matter much if the blue linemen hold their positions against an attacking Chicago offense.

There’s plenty of experience of the Phoenix blue line, and they’re hungry to make it to the second round after being ousted in the first round back to back years.

Goalies

Corey Crawford will be the starting goaltender for the ‘Hawks, and though his numbers don’t look as good as you’d want your goaltender to have, Crawford has been rock solid his past 11 games, posting an 8-1-2 record with a .921 save percentage and 1.85 GAA.

Crawford has been the star of the ‘Hawks recently. He could really earn his contract extension if he continues to play like he has been the past few weeks, ad it would definitely help with the defensive inconsistencies the ‘Hawks are plagued by every now and then.

Phoenix’s best player and reason for making the playoffs might well be their goaltender, Mike Smith. Smith was 38-18-10 with a .930 save percentage, a 2.21 GAA, and had eight shutouts, something Chicago has failed to have all season. Smith has only played in three other playoff games, but there’s few questioning his ability to lead this Coyotes team to victory.

The whole Phoenix system lives and dies on how well Smith performs in games. The pressure is on Smith, so he better be ready.

Chicago Blackhawks-Phoenix Coyotes Prediction

It’s impossible to deny the impact that Mike Smith will have against a great Chicago offense, but with Toews and Dave Bolland returning from injuries, it’s hard to see the ‘Hawks, who have more depth and weapons, losing in the first round, even without home-ice.

Blackhawks win in 6 games. 

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