GLENDALE -- The playoffs are finally here. Of the 30 teams that opened training camp back in September, only 16 remain in contention for the Stanley Cup – and your Coyotes are one of them.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride all year long (would you have it any other way?), but there has certainly been more highs than lows. Now the Desert Dogs enter the postseason on the heels of their first ever division title and with their sights set on much more. To get where they want to go, they’ll need key performances from everyone. Especially these guys…
– I may as well start with the obvious. In fact, this might be the single most obvious statement I’ve ever written/said/thought/sung: “Mike Smith
must be a major factor in this series.” There, I said it. Glad you could be a part of that moment. Regardless of how basic it may sound though, it’s true. At the end of the day, teams go as far as their goaltending can take them in the playoffs. Sure, the occasional juggernaut can sneak by with shaky netminding, but you’re better off having a guy who’s stopping everything he sees. And that’s the only way to describe Mike Smith
right now. Anything can happen in the postseason and momentum can swing countless times in a seven-game battle – but I’ll take my chances with a guy who seems to play bigger and get better every time he gets hit by a puck.
– Usually when you’ve seen a club 82 times, it’s fairly easy to name the team MVP. Thanks to Ray Whitney
, that wasn’t the case in Phoenix this year. Sure Smith made saves that should have been scientifically impossible and consistently rose to the occasion in the biggest games, but Whitney was just as important. All he did was register 77 points (12th in the NHL), become the 79th player in League history to crack the 1,000-point barrier in a career, revitalize Radim Vrbata
’s scoring touch, provide one of the most consistent threats of offense in the entire league and make everyone around him better. But that’s all. They’ll need more of the same from him the playoffs.
– We’ve seen what he’s capable of over the last 15 years. And we’ve seen him ratchet his intensity level up about 10 notches in limited action over the last two postseasons. Nobody wants to advance in the playoffs more than Shane Doan
. Nobody. And that’s saying something, because every hockey player raises their game this time of year - even the guys playing rec league around town or the kids playing video game hockey. When the Stanley Cup Playoffs are going, intensity is in the air and everyone steps it up. Doan not only takes it to the next level, but he has the talent to impact the game multiple ways. They’ll need him to be a physical presence, lead by example and put the puck in the net. Pretty standard.
– The bottom line is he’s a two-time All-Star with plenty more on the horizon. And when he’s on his game, the Coyotes rarely lose.
– His 35 goals are a major reason Phoenix is sitting in the No. 3 spot to start the playoffs. But it’s his ability to score game-winners (12 on the year – second to exactly no one in the NHL) that could make all the difference now.
– Believe it or not, he’s one of the few guys on the roster with no playoff experience. He’s also 20 years old and plays like he’s 30. Nothing seems to faze him – the perfect quality to have on your blue line in April.
– To me he’s the X-factor. He has Stanley Cup experience and he’s a physical presence who can punish the opposition by putting the puck in the net… or simply running guys over. Both methods can be effective in the playoffs. Raffi knows it, and that’s why he gets better as the games matter more.
On top of all that, Boyd Gordon
has to win faceoffs and block shots that no one in their right mind would block, Rusty Klesla has to do Rusty Klesla things and just shut people down, Lauri Korpikoski
has to kill penalties and trigger some rushes, Adrian Aucoin
and Derek Morris
have to set the tone on defense, and Martin Hanzal
has to be a big presence on both ends of the ice. Trust me, I could keep going. But then the web site editor would chase me around the arena with a hockey stick for writing a 10,000-word blog.
The bottom line is, everyone has to pull their weight for this club to be successful – ever heard the phrase “pack mentality?” It just starts with the guys I listed above. And what’s the best part? They’re all more than capable of doing it.