Octopi and Snakes: Two Unlikely Adversaries
The Red Wings were supposed to be a natural choice for home-ice advantage. The Coyotes weren't supposed to be anywhere near the playoffs, let alone 4th-best in the entire league.
This wasn't supposed to happen. But here we are.
Taking into consideration the assumptions made in September versus what actually happened for 82 games for both teams constitutes exactly what makes this series difficult to predict. But the NHL's motto for this year seems to be "expect the unexpected." If you had told me Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby would be sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy and that AO was shut out of both that and the Art Ross I might have laughed you out of the room.
But more to the point: these two teams still have a ways to go to prove themselves. And they'll have to start off by doing it against each other.
Detroit's experience cannot be questioned except for one bit of a factor: goaltending. They'll look to post-season newcomer Jimmy Howard to continue playing the way he has been, and all signs point to him stepping up to the challenge, having been one of the key factors for Detroit's 5th-place finish. Even if he doesn't, however, Chris Osgood has definitely been in this situation before. Ilya Bryzgalov has a tough task on his end to stop the dazzling Datsyuk/Zetterberg duo. While neither forward has had their best year in Detroit, they are no stranger to clutch performances with this much at stake.
The Red Wings may have the natural edge in offense. But the Coyotes didn't exactly join this dance unprepared.
Deadline acquisition Lee Stempniak has been nothing short of fantastic since his Coyotes' debut. With 14 goals in 18 games (note: his goal total with the Leafs for the other 62 games was also 14), he will be a natural target for the Wings' defense, as he looks to continue carrying the offensive flame for the Phoenix forwards. Meanwhile, Wojtek Wolski has similarly been leading the charge on the assists front and captain Shane Doan will be poised to break out of his late-season slump to get his team on the board as well. Matthew Lombardi has also picked it up as of late, and has the potential to become a post-season breakout story.
Defense is slightly tougher to match up on paper. The Coyotes' stable mix of youth and veterans has paid dividends for them all year, but the Wings will be sure to pull out the experience card and make great use of it. Nicklas Lidstrom's hardware collection speaks for itself, and he's not alone. The "support crew", if you can even call it that, is comprised of hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall, plus-23 Brian Rafalski, wild card Brad Stuart (notable in his performance against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, where he notched the overtime winner), returning veteran Andreas Lilja and the young Jonathan Ericsson.
While there is no shootout in the playoffs, and Phoenix has used it to determine the outcome of 7 of their last 12 games, they have come back from matchups that seemed impossible to win, and outlasted their opponent to come out with victory in the end. It won't be a surprise if more than one game is decided in extra time. The challenge for the Coyotes remains that they won't get the chance to put it away on a one-on-one challenge, lest Detroit give up a rogue breakaway opportunity which--let's face it--they are not exactly known to do.
Another factor the desert dogs need to take into account is the power play. At a dismal 14.6%, only the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs were worse on the man-advantage all season long. All the late-night HNIC watchers were "fortunate" to have witnessed its prowess against the Edmonton Oilers just over a week ago, particularly during a rare 6 on 3 opportunity. That is one thing that head coach Dave Tippett is sure to be working on in the days ahead. While Detroit hasn't quite been lethal on the penalty kill this year, the aformentioned defensive crew has a pretty good idea of who to keep their eyes on.
These obstacles are substantial, but not deadly. As they've done all year, Phoenix will continue to battle adversity, start new trends (what's all this talk about snakes, now?) and turn new heads in their direction.
All this being said, it shouldn't be a short series. If the 'Yotes find a way to slither out of the first round (ha!), in all likelihood, it'll go to the games' limit.
(I had to. Blame Twitter, OK?)