For the Phoenix Coyotes, the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t just a second chance at besting the Detroit Red Wings to move on to the semi-finals, it’s a fight for survival.
With the future of the club up in the air, since at least last fall when Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer’s talks to buy it from the NHL became public, performance in the playoffs could be a deciding factor.
It was on the heels of a first-round loss that the Winnipeg Jets packed up their bags and flew south for the winter in 1996. A first-round loss to the Detroit Red Wings, nonetheless.
And with True North Sports and Entertainment waiting to swoop in and move the franchise back home if Hulsizer can’t work through legal issues to get the money he needs from the City of Glendale with the Goldwater Institute, the thought of the Jets taking to the ice next fall at the MTS Centre isn’t too far-fetched.
While last year’s appearance in the Western Conference quarter-final ended the Coyotes’ six-year playoff drought, it’s been 24 years since the club has won a postseason series.
But back in 1987 when the Jets beat the Calgary Flames, they had Dale Hawerchuck, Brian Mullen, Dave Ellet, and goalie Pokey Reddick onside.
So can the Coyotes, in all their mediocrity this season, pull something off?
Entering the playoffs with a 46–23–13, the Coyotes were 11th in the league, no thanks to their average-to-below-average offence.
With just 2.76 goals per game, Tippett’s boys wrapped up the regular season in that category’s no. 14 spot. And considering they went a pretty abysmal 15.9 per cent on the power play, they were lucky.
The Coyotes on their own, are relatively easy to miss, but together could be considered quite the wolf pack. Captain Shane Doan was the team’s leading scorer at 20 goals, although he racked up 40 assists for a total of 60 points. Radim Vrbata, Lee Stempniak, and Lauri Korpikoski each had 19 goals.
One of a handful of NHLers to ever score an overtime game-winner in the seventh game of a playoff series — he did it against the Flames in 1995 when he was a San Jose Shark — Ray Whitney brings critical postseason experience to the table.
Top 10 in the league when it comes to not just wins, but saves and shutouts as well, Bryzgalov is a force to be reckoned with. He went 36–20–10 this season, despite the fact the Coyotes were outshot 52 times and allowed 32.6 shots per game on average.
Ranked an embarrassing fourth-last on the penalty kill at 78.4 per cent, the Coyotes don’t stand a chance this series without Bryzgalov.
Behind the blue line, its Keith Yandle’s game. He was ranked third among NHL defencemen with 59 points, a total that earned him the no. 2 spot on the Coyotes’ list of top scorers.
And Yandle’s not entirely alone back there. He’s got the likes of Adrian Aucoin, Rostislav Klesla, and Derek Morris to back him up.
Solid all season, the Coyotes are not without a leg to stand on against the Red Wings.
The talent is there and the Coyotes have a chance — a slim one, but it’s there — to steal a few games from their rivals, who were just 21–14–6 at home this year, at the Joe Louis Arena.
There’s no telling how things are going to end up, but an early exit from the playoffs could mean and early exit from Phoenix for the struggling franchise.