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Hawks winger Viktor Stalberg collides with Phoenix goalie Mike Smith after a Smith save in the second period of the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 loss to the visiting Phoenix Coyotes November 29, 2011 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Blackhawks’ talent gives them edge over Coyotes

SHARE Blackhawks’ talent gives them edge over Coyotes
SHARE Blackhawks’ talent gives them edge over Coyotes

The neutral zone will be clogged. Offensive-zone entries will be denied or chased down. The crease will be boxed out. And the Phoenix Coyotes will rely on goalie Mike Smith to do the rest.

“They are well-coached and they play a good team system, and it’s tough to get to the net on them,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp said of facing the Coyotes in the first-round of the playoffs.

“When you do get to the net, you have to deal with their goaltender. It’s going to be a difficult series.”

But it’s winnable.

Season series: Coyotes won 3-1.

Key stat: The Coyotes are 33-4-6 this season when scoring first, the fourth-best mark in the NHL.

Quick hit: This is a matchup of conflicting styles, with the Coyotes’ defensive approach getting the better of the Hawks during the regular season. The onus will be on the Hawks to remain patient, make safe plays and not fall behind, similar to facing the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators.

Up front: The Hawks are simply deeper and more talented. There isn’t much there for the Coyotes behind the ageless Ray Whitney, Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan, but they can make the Hawks pay for their errors. Vrbata (35 goals) has a tendency to score big and frustrating goals against his former team.

“Whitney and Vrbata, those guys can definitely beat you if you give them a chance,” goalie Corey Crawford said.

If Jonathan Toews returns, as expected, the Hawks will field a very formidable lineup. Viktor Stalberg’s rise and the improvement of rookies Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw make them even better.

On the blue line: The Coyotes have a blend of youth and experience. Keith Yandle and rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson can make plays and veteran Adrian Aucoin still has value, but the team also has some slower players who can be exploited.

The addition of Johnny Oduya has helped the Hawks’ defense, especially Nick Leddy, but Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook still lead the way. The play of the Hawks’ blue line dictates how effective their puck-possession game will be. Simple, smart passes are a necessity. If they aren’t made, the Coyotes will take advantage.

“They play good defensively, kind of wait for those odd-man rushes and wait for you to make mistakes,” Crawford said.

In goal: On paper, the edge goes to Mike Smith. He’s big and athletic, and he had a breakthrough year with 38 wins and eight shutouts. But regular-season success doesn’t always translate to the postseason. Ilya Bryzgalov became a star for the Coyotes playing in the same system before leaving for Philadelphia. But Smith, 30, will be a challenge. He plays the puck well, so smart dump-ins and persistent traffic are musts.

Crawford is considered by many to be the Hawks’ weakest link. But he has been great down the stretch, going 8-1-2 in his last 11 appearances and allowing just one goal in five of those games. “He’s been tremendous,” Oduya said. If the Coyotes get Crawford moving side to side, they might be able to capitalize.

Special efforts: Asked for his three keys to the series, Marian Hossa said, “Power play, power play, power play.” As bad as the Hawks’ power play was this season (15.2 percent), the Coyotes were worse at 13.6. They also have a much better penalty kill.

The Hawks’ plan to roll out a power play with Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook and Patrick Kane, but they’ve tried that before in the regular season with varied success. More traffic, shots on goal and dirty goals are needed.

On the benches: Joel Quenneville and Dave Tippett are longtime friends and former teammates. Quenneville deserves credit for finally getting his team, which is filled with rookies, to commit to defense. Tippet earns praise often for winning without much.

Jahns’ pick: Hawks in 6. Just like the Detroit Red Wings the last two postseasons, the Hawks eliminate the Coyotes with more depth, more offensive weapons and decent goaltending.

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