The regular season is over and that means one thing in Hockeytown: a drive toward another Stanley Cup championship. The Detroit Red Wings are set to begin their record 20th straight postseason on Wednesday, when they will take on the Phoenix Coyotes in a rematch of last year's first round series.
This year the two teams essentially switched places. The Red Wings were struck by injuries hard last season and needed to go on a remarkable run just to finish fifth in the conference. This season, Detroit won the Central Division and finished third despite being hit hard by injuries again, while it was the Coyotes scrapping in the middle of the pack for playoff positioning.
Detroit beat Phoenix in seven games during last year's playoffs, ending a remarkable season for the Coyotes in which they finished with the most points since they moved to the desert in the late 1990s. The two teams added a couple new players between then and now, but these are basically the same two teams that tangled in the first round next year. Without further ado, here's the rundown of the two teams.
Detroit Red Wings
47-25-10, 104 points, 1st place Central Division
Leading scorer: Henrik Zetterberg (24 goals, 56 assists)
Top goaltender: Jimmy Howard (37-17-5, 2.79 GAA)
Power Play: 22.3 percent (5th)
Penalty Kill: 82.3 percent (17th)
43-26-13, 99 points, 2nd place Pacific Division
Leading scorer: Shane Doan (20 goals, 40 assists)
Top goaltender: Ilya Bryzgalov (36-20-10, 2.48 GAA)
Power Play: 15.9 percent (23rd)
Penalty Kill: 78.4 percent (26th)
Oct. 16: Detroit 2, Phoenix 1 (OT)
Oct. 28: Phoenix 4, Detroit 2
Nov. 8: Detroit 3, Phoenix 2 (OT)
March 5: Phoenix 5, Detroit 4 (SO)
It seems like the Red Wings haven't had their full complement of forwards since November, and that's because they haven't. Injuries hit key players like Dan Cleary and Pavel Datsyuk for significant periods of time, as well as Mike Modano, who was out nearly the entire season with a scary wrist injury. The end of the season got no better, as Datsyuk again went out for several games with a lower-body injury, and leading-scorer Henrik Zetterberg will likely miss the first couple games of the postseason with a leg injury.
Still, Detroit found guys to step in and fill the void when they needed to. Nicklas Lidstrom had a bounce-back year, putting up 62 points a season after netting 49. Darren Helm had a breakout season with 12 goals and 32 points, and fellow role players such as Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves all had sound offensive seasons to help Detroit stay on top of the Central. Even Jiri Hudler, who got off to an extremely slow start, found his groove and finished with a respectable 39 points.
Phoenix on the other hand, was not able to claim as much success on the offensive end. Phoenix finished a respectable eighth in the conference in goals forced, but they do not have a dominant scorer as the Red Wings possess in Zetterberg and Datsyuk. In fact, Phoenix did not have a 20-goal scorer until captain Shane Doan got No. 20 on the season on April 8 against San Jose. However, they do have balanced attack; eight players scored at least 16 times for Phoenix this season.
Doan will be the player that the Red Wings will have to focus on in order to shut down the Coyotes' offense. It may seem a no-brainer because he's the leading scorer on the team, but Doan was a thorn in the Red Wings' side during their series last year. Martin Hanzal also had a good season against Detroit, scoring three times in the four meetings this season.
Advantage: Red Wings
Ah, the defense. At times it bailed out the Red Wings this year, but most of the time fans were left screaming unkind words at the end of games because of a defensive collapse. Rarely did the Red Wings' usually-sound defensemen get praise for their play this season. That's what happens when you allow the fourth-most goals in the Western Conference, the worst of the eight playoff teams.
Many will point to the -2 rating that Lidstrom had this season as why he shouldn't win a seventh Norris Trophy, but the stat is misleading. Lidstrom was his usually perfect self for the most part this season; more often than not one of his teammates missed a defensive assignment that led to bad goals. That person wasn't always a defenseman, either; there were more forwards missing defensive assignments this year than I care to remember. Perhaps the worst offender in that category this season was Niklas Kronwall, who seemed to take a step backwards in his defensive play. Jonathan Ericsson also had some terrible games this year.
Phoenix was much better on the defensive end than Detroit, allowing the fifth-least amount of goals in the West. The Phoenix defense is led by Keith Yandle, a budding star among NHL defensemen. Yandle was second on the Coyotes in scoring with 59 points and like Lidstrom is one of the top candidates to win the Norris Trophy this season. Helping Yandle anchor the Coyotes' defense is wiley veteran Ed Jovanovski, who recently returned from a fractured orbital bone that limited him to 50 games this season.
The one thing that Phoenix doesn't do well on the defensive end is limit shots. Phoenix allowed the most shots in the West this season, giving up nearly 33 per game. By contrast, Detroit was second to San Jose in forcing shots, driving just under 34 a game at the net. Of the eight playoff teams only Phoenix, Nashville and Anaheim allow more shots than they generate. That could spell a lot of work for goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and the rest of the Phoenix defense. While Bryzgalov is a solid goaltender, it's a tall task for anyone if the Red Wings are putting up 40 shots a game in a seven-game series.
Advantage: Red Wings
Jimmy Howard won 37 games as a rookie last year, earning high praise and a nomination for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Not much changed in 2010-11, as Howard won 37 games again and finished tied for fourth in the league, one win behind leader Carey Price.
However, Howard's goals against average shot up and his save percentage went down significantly in his second campaign. He gave up half a goal more this year than last and his save percentage dipped from .924 to .908—placing him 31st among NHL goaltenders. Part of that was due to his defense not being as sound as they have been in the past, but part was due to simple sophomore mistakes. While Howard is 27 years old, he's still a relatively new NHL goaltender and he's bound to make errors in net; hopefully with more experience those will start to go away. His experience in last year's playoff run should help him tremendously now that he knows what to expect.
Bryzgalov on the other hand was his usual stellar self in Phoenix, winning 36 games and compiling a 2.48 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Keep in mind the shot statistic from before; Bryzgalov was on average facing more shots than any netminder in the West. That's an impressive feat, and the Red Wings will have a tall order trying to solve him without Zetterberg in the lineup when the series starts. That said, Bryzgalov is not unbeatable. He's a solid goaltender, but Detroit did beat him last year in the playoffs and split the season series with the Coyotes. The Red Wings have a vast array of offensive weapons even without Zetterberg; Bryzgalov will have a hard time stopping all of them throughout the course of the series.
Special teams are crucial in any playoff series and could be the deciding factor in this one. Detroit has a heavy statistical advantage in special teams, as they boast the fifth-best power play in the league while Phoenix has one of the worst penalty kills (in fact, Phoenix has the worst penalty kill of all playoff teams). Detroit's penalty kill was average by their standards, but the Phoenix power play was near the bottom of the league.
Detroit's advantage could be negated if the Coyotes stay out of the box. Phoenix averaged 10.5 penalty minutes per game, one of the lowest in the league. Neither team likes to drop the gloves, as both were in the bottom five in fighting majors this season (Detroit was dead last with 13). If the play stays 5-on-5 for most of the game, it could turn into another long series.
X-Factor: Hockeytown West:
Even Phoenix fans don't deny that there is a heavy Red Wings presence in the desert. When Detroit comes to town, it is not uncommon to find a 60-40 split between the fans—in favor of the Red Wings. The Red Wings have a strong following wherever they go, but it is more prevalent in Phoenix than it is anywhere else in the league.
The Coyotes were once again near the bottom of the league in attendance, finishing 29th out of the 30 teams. The only team that finished lower was the Islanders, and Phoenix—a playoff team, mind you—only edged them by about 1,000 fans per game. That's quite a sad stat considering the 'Yotes have been one of the best teams in the West the past two seasons.
Detroit technically only has home ice for four games, but they'll have strong support in this series no matter where they're playing.
The Coyotes kind of came out of nowhere last year, surprising everyone by finishing fourth in the conference and earning home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Detroit looked like they might have been surprised in that first round matchup too, but the Red Wings found their rhythm late in the series and scored some lopsided wins over the Coyotes. The Red Wings should be much more prepared this time around. While I think it will still be a tough series, I don't believe it will go the full seven games. Red Wings in six.