Phoenix Coyotes take series opening vs Chicago Blackhawks

Going into the Thursday opener between Chicago and Phoenix, most analysts were split on their predictions. Several pointed out that the Coyotes had owned the season series between the two, 3-1; but just as many acknowledged that those games were not some of the Blackhawks' best hockey of the year. Mike Smith has been the difference-maker for Phoenix, while the Chicago goalies have had their share of struggles.

At the end of the day, however, these two teams have always battled strongly against one another, their different styles making for some interesting games.

After four high-paced opening minutes, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews put the first goal of the night past Mike Smith on a backhanded shot at a tough angle. Andrew Shaw provided the kind of grit and pest-itude we've seen in past playoffs from Dave Bolland, while at the same time playing hard all over the ice.

The Coyotes returned with more pressure in the second, pushing more play into the Blackhawks end. A too-many-men call against the Coyotes was missed; then Niklas Hjalmarsson cleared a puck that Corey Crawford would have frozen, and suddenly the game was tied 1-1 with just over 12 minutes left in the second.

Antoine Vermette, who was a trade deadline trade to Phoenix from Columbus, then gave Phoenix the lead 2-1 late in the second, only to take an interference penalty immediately afterward, shoving Dave Bolland into Mike Smith. The Coyotes took the 2-1 lead into the second intermission.

Phoenix had several good looks at the Blackhawks net during the first half of the third, while the Chicago power play continues to be anemic. The best players on the ice were Jonathan Toews and Andrew Shaw; Corey Crawford was doing his best to keep the Blackhawks in the game. Any questions about his regular season play might not be completely at rest, but the Crawford seen tonight was the same Crawford witnessed in last year's playoffs.

But three players do not make an entire team effort; the "energy line" was unproductive, and Marian Hossa was looking invisible by Hossa standards. Viktor Stalberg and Patrick Sharp looked sloppy.

The Blackhawks only made 12 blocks (Phoenix made 27), won just 43% of their faceoffs (Toews, freshly back from his long absence, was only 45%), and were outhit 48 to 22. Martin Hanzal and Shane Doan led the Coytes in hits, with 15 between them, and also led the team in offense, with 6 and 4 SOG each.

Brent Seabrook scored with just 15 seconds remaining in the third period to force overtime. Seabrook has been underappreciated this year, which is a shame, as he has been the best defenseman for the team all year and has scored several important goals.

The Coyotes were the better team on the ice for most of the game. After playing a strong first period, Chicago lost momentum in the second, and Phoenix readily capitalized on their mistakes and turnovers, despite losing one of their top scorers, Radim Vrbata, early in the game. Vrbata is listed as "day to day". The Coyotes don't have any big stars; instead, they have a couple of solid players, such as Keith Yandle, who has been in Norris discussion for the past couple seasons - so they're a team that succeeds "by committee", by committing to a team plan and sticking with it. Consistency and hard work can succeed over talent, given the opportunity.

Phoenix earned its first division title - the first in 33 years of franchise history, stretching back to their days as the original Winnipeg Jets - in the ultra-competitive Pacific division. They hope to turn that into a series win and their first deeper run at the Stanley Cup. The Coyotes are one of nine teams in this year's playoffs who have never won a Cup - the others being the Florida Panthers (17 seasons), Washington Capitals (36), Ottawa Senators (current inception of franchise, 18), Vancouver Canucks (40), St. Louis Blues (43), Nashville Predators (12), San Jose Sharks (19), and Los Angles Kings (43). (Longest drought among teams who've won a Cup: Flyers, 35.)

Martin Hanzal scored the game-winning goal for Phoenix at 9:29 in the first overtime, and the Coyotes start out leading the series 1-0.

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Their second game is Saturday night in Phoenix at 9 p.m. CT; it will be broadcast on NBCSN (CSN-Chicago for those in the Chicago market).