The Phoenix Coyotes (42-27-13, 97 points) and Chicago Blackhawks (45-26-11, 101 points) are set for an exciting first round matchup in the 2012 NHL Playoffs, but just because the Hawks have the higher seed doesn't mean they hold the strategic edge in the series. Hawks captain Jonathan Toews has skated without symptoms for a few days and is slated to return after sitting out for a long stretch with a concussion, but the Coyotes ended the season with five straight wins behind hot goaltending from Mike Smith.
SB Nation has been breaking down the series since the pairing was announced, and David Strehle thinks Phoenix has a good chance to advance to the second round for the first time since 1996. He compares offense, defense, special teams and goaltending, and the Yotes get the edge in every category except offense. Here is a small snippet from his great analysis:
...Mike Smith has been a revelation for Phoenix. Signed as an UFA in the offseason after several inconsistent seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Smith posted a stellar 38-18-10 record with a 2.21 GAA and .930 save percentage and eight shutouts. His play filled a large hole left by the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov, and gives the Coyotes hope they can beat a very good Blackhawks club.
THE COYOTES WILL WIN IF ... Phoenix can continue their stingy defensive efforts, receive secondary scoring after the top three of Vrbata, Whitney, and Doan, and Smith gives them the netminding performances he has tendered for a good portion of the season -- especially down the stretch. If they can accomplish all three, the Coyotes could reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996.
Here is the information you need to find game one:
No. 7 Chicago Blackhawks at No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes
9 p.m. CT Thursday -- Game 1, Western Conference Quarterfinals | Series tied, 0-0
National TV: NBC Sports Network, TSN | Local TV: CSN Chicago, FS Arizona+
Here's another terrific look at the series from Ricky O'Donnell, Z.W. Martin and Chicago Sun-Times Blackhawks beat reporter Adam Jahns:
For more from the Blackhawks perspective, check in with SB Nation Chicago and Second City Hockey. For more from the Coyotes perspective, check in with Five For Howling and SB Nation Phoenix.
For complete coverage of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, stick with SB Nation's NHL hub. You can find team-by-team coverage from our network of hockey blogs.