By Dave Vest
The Coyotes will begin their postseason quest for the Stanley Cup on Thursday night when they host the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of a Western Conference quarterfinal series at Jobing.com Arena. The puck drops at 7 p.m. (Arizona time).
Phoenix, which earned 97 points and won the Pacific Division title, is the No. 3 seed in the conference playoffs. Chicago, which finished fourth in the Central Division, is the No. 6 seed.
"Winning the division means getting home ice," Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett said on Wednesday. "It’s nothing to hang your hat on. It’s an accomplishment for our group and we’ll certainly take that, but the celebrating was very minimal right after that game. All it means is home ice for us and we have to take advantage of it.”
The Coyotes will be looking to win a first-round playoff series for the first time since moving to Arizona from Winnipeg in 1996. The franchise last won a playoff series in 1987.
These teams played four times during the regular season. Chicago won the first game, but the Coyotes won the last three.
“The regular season is what it is but it’s over now,” Coyotes goalie Mike Smith
said. “Obviously, it’s nice to know we can beat them but the playoffs are a whole new season and we start from scratch now.”
Smith will be in goal for the Coyotes and make just his fourth appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He played three games for Tampa Bay last season in the Eastern Conference finals.
Smith finished the regular season with five wins in a row and he stopped 190 of 192 shots in those games.
Offensively, the Coyotes are led by winger Ray Whitney
, who notched 77 points in the regular season. Whitney, 39, notched a team-high six of those points vs. Chicago. Linemate Radim Vrbata
scored the most goals on the team (35) while captain Shane Doan
ranked third in goals (22) and points (50).
“This is going to be fun,” Doan said. “This is why you play all the other (regular-season) games – so you have a chance to play in the last ones... We like our team and we can’t wait to get it going.”
Doan said the key to beating the Blackhawks will be puck possession.
"We have to play with the puck," Doan said. "We can't be chasing it the whole time. You look at their team and their top five, six forwards - they have elite talent. If you give them the puck too much it's going to make for a long night."
|Photo by Getty Images.
The Blackhawks earned 101 points this season but only 41 points on the road. They will enter this game after losing four of their last seven games of the regular season.
Like Whitney, right wing Marian Hossa ranked 12th in the NHL with 77 points, and left wing Patrick Sharp was the team's leading goal scorer with 33.
Corey Crawford, who has played in just eight Stanley Cup Playoff games, is expected to start in goal for the Blackhawks, the only team in the NHL that did not post a shutout this season.
Captain Jonathan Toews, who hasn't played since Feb. 19 because of an upper-body injury, this week told reporters he expects to play in Game 1.
"“I think I’m right there and it’s been a day where I feel like I’m just getting better and better and getting back to where I want to be as far as when I’m going to play a game," Toews told reporters on Wednesday. "So, we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.”