The other day I wrote a piece on the upcoming western conference playoffs in the NHL, and in doing so I kind of took a tone that assumed the Detroit Red Wings would advance to the second round, and that the Los Angeles Kings would not get the 4 seed and therefore not have much of a shot in these playoffs. What a difference a game makes!
Last night I went to bed with Phoenix holding a 2-1 lead over the Kings, and I wasn’t a bit surprised. I pegged Phoenix as the fourth or fifth best team in the west, and I assumed when the chips were down they would beat LA and vault past them in the standings. Well, a 3-2 shootout win for LA later (their league-leading tenth SO victory, by the way), and it is the Kings who have become the fourth team to clinch the playoffs in the west, and hold the inside track on the all-important number four seed. The Kings’ final two games are a home and home with their crosstown rival, the Anaheim Ducks. That series could still go either way, and in fact a sweep by Anaheim would put the Ducks ahead of the Kings in the final standings (provided that at least one of the wins would be in regulation). But since there’s no real reason to predict an Anaheim sweep, I have to assume that LA will finish higher at this point.
As big as this win was for the Kings, I really don’t think the loss is that big of a deal for the Coyotes. First, as I pointed out the other day, Phoenix is a very good road team. Second, the five seed is the same as the four, except that a potential seventh game would be played inside the building of the four seed. Third, even if Phoenix slides past the fifth spot and finishes sixth or seventh, I still think they have a good chance of prevailing in the first round. It seems not quite possible yet to determine whether Detroit or San Jose will get the two seed, but either way those two teams will play the six and seven seeds. From Phoenix’s perspective, neither matchup is a death sentence. If the Coyotes draw the Sharks, they will at least have had a couple warmups going into the first game. Phoenix’s last two games this week are a home and home with San Jose. Regardless of how those games turn out, Phoenix at least would have the familiarity with how the Sharks are playing and what they’re doing right now by playing these upcoming two games. And if it’s the Red Wings that the Coyotes draw, we need to look no further than last year’s first round series in which Phoenix won two of their three road games at Joe Louis Arena. It is true that Detroit turned in a fantastic performance in Game 7 in the desert to take the series, but one certainly shouldn’t point to that as proof that a rematch would be certain to yield the same outcome. The other thing I like about the Coyotes is that despite serious issues concerning ownership and the issues with the franchise, they have shown intent to go forward. They draw a great crowd when the games are important, as many of us can recall those ice-vibrating “white out” games from 1998 up until last season. Also, if they weren’t serious about giving it a go this spring, they would have traded star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov before the deadline, as he is a free agent this summer. Now, maybe it was that they couldn’t trade him simply because ownership and management is handcuffed, but I do not know that to be the case. And while I would like to see Winnipeg get an NHL team soon, and I know that the rest of Canada is dying for another franchise (at least Quebec is), but I don’t really want to see Phoenix be the franchise that goes. It would be like moving the Baltimore Ravens back to Cleveland; I don’t think the people of Cleveland would even want that franchise, despite its successes. There’s too much ugly baggage. I’d much rather see one or more teams leave the Southeastern division than to eliminate these white out games and move a team that seems to have a decent fan base in a comparatively growing city.
So while I don’t think last night’s loss is crippling for the Coyotes, the Red Wings are in a distinctly different position than they were just 24 hours ago. Early in the game last night at Carolina, Henrik Zetterberg picked up the always-trending “lower body injury.” No official determination has been made as to the length of time that Hank will be out of the Red Wing lineup, but he has been officially ruled out for both meetings against Chicago to end the regular season. It is said that he will be reevaluated after Sunday’s regular season finale. This does not bode well for the Red Wings, especially given the fact that they are coming off a season in which injuries were used to blame the team’s first failure to make the conference finals since Stevie Y’s final season. The general consensus was that the Red Wings had to battle so hard to come up from 9th or 10th place last year to get up to 5th and then defeat Phoenix in seven games that they had nothing left in the tank when that second round series started against San Jose. The other oft-used excuse was that too many players were hurt over large portions of the season, and the team did not have the usual time to gel as it did in the previous three seasons involving playoff success.
There is probably a lot of truth to both of these theories on last season’s failure, but that does not change the fact that with Zetterberg’s injury happening right after Pavel Datsyuk’s return there are now those same issues surrounding the Red Wings. The team itself may not use injuries as an excuse, but as fans we really don’t care about talk, we care about what will happen on the ice. And if Zetterberg is unable to go in the playoffs, a large portion of Detroit’s gameplan and identity go out the window. Detroit thrives on puck possession and fluidity on offense. They are a team that gets a lot of shots on goal, and many of their goals are of the highlight reel variety. But what’s more than just the effects this style of play has on the scoreboard or the Arsenal-type of casual fans is the fact that this puck possession game hides the team’s defensive deficiencies. During both of Pavel Datsyuk’s injuries this season, the team struggled to keep the puck in its opponents’ end like it was accustomed to. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are without question the two forwards who most exemplify the puck possession style that Detroit likes to play with. And so without both available, Detroit will have to win without having the puck quite as much. This means more shots on Jimmy Howard, and that statistically means bad things for the Red Wings. Howard has been far less than spectacular this season, sporting the league’s 30th best save percentage at .909. And before you get skeptical about that stat, none of the 29 goalies ahead of Howard have played less than 27 games this year. So if regular season stats hold true to form, more shots on Howard means more goals against Detroit. Of course Zetterberg’s offensive pop will be missed as well, which is what makes an injury to him or Datsyuk such a double-edged sword. But of course, if the playoffs have taught us nothing else, it’s that regular season stats do not always hold true to form in the playoffs, and so it would be short-sighted to proclaim the Red Wings as dead. But looking ahead to a possible rematch with San Jose, it would be hard to foresee the Red Wings winning that series given that they are probably not in a better position than last year at this time, while San Jose appears to be clicking with a Stanley Cup winning goalie and a seemingly large chip on its shoulder after everyone left had jumped off the bandwagon after last year’s conference final sweep at the hands of Chicago and this season’s slow start.
Lastly, if you like your series to be offensive, you should probably root against the current standings holding up. If the Los Angeles Kings draw the Nashville Predators in the first round, there is a distinct possibility that the series could go seven games with neither team scoring more than 11 goals. Seven 2-1 games would do it, and if you sprinkle in a 1-0 game or two, there’s even some room for error! So while pitching duel proponents and those who yearn for lockdown defense might really love that series, the rest of the 320 million North Americans would probably rather see both of those teams try their defensive hands against better offenses than each others’.