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Mike Smith

Five months ago I wrote about why Phoenix and Florida, two franchises pegged for relocation by many over the past few seasons, were sitting atop their respective divisions early, and why expectations for both franchises should be raised from the bottom-dwelling perceptions that most hockey fans had.
Well, here we are on this Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection of two hockey franchises thought to be dead men skating as recently as… well, right now, if we’re talking about the Coyotes.
Back in November, I wrote about how the increase in scope and prevalence of information and coverage has led us all to become more aware of financials all around us — never mind that we don’t actually get to see any team’s balance sheet. The Pacific and Southeast division titles clinched on Super Saturday only cement my opinion that we all give too much weight to team finances and salary cap figures when trying to project a point total in the standings.
Photo via (Timothy T. Ludwig, US Presswire)
Pound that water, Mike Smith. You’ve earned it.

Aside from the “hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet” argument, we looked at how all too often sports predictions are based heavily on the previous season. Upon looking at the six division champions, I would need proof of anybody seriously calling for any of the division winners we saw this year outside of the two defending conference champions — Vancouver and Boston.

I loved the N.Y. Rangers growing roster, and I still couldn’t pull the trigger on picking them ahead of Pittsburgh (and I was wishy-washy on taking them second over Philadelphia). I liked the St. Louis Blues, and still deferred to last season in picking them to squeak into the playoffs as the Central Division’s fourth-best team. Granted, none of us saw the Ken Hitchcock lockdown D coming, but the roster didn’t change from opening night. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott just decided to tag team the Jennings Trophy. And then there are Florida and Phoenix. Show me the timestamp on someone’s projection of either one of them as division title winners, and I’ll show you someone who forges timestamps.
The unfortunate part for both the Panthers and Coyotes is that they’ll have to face two teams that are very deep in playoff experience at different positions. Florida will host New Jersey, whose word association answer is always going to be “Brodeur.” Aside from the winningest netminder in league history, the Devils still have Patrik Elias and Zach Parise to lead the line, as well as 83-point scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, surprise 30-goal man David Clarkson, and a pair of elderly chaps in Petr Sykora and Dainus Zubrus who each turned in 44 points in 82 games.
I have not come across series prices yet this morning, but I do see Florida getting twice the money to win the eastern conference that New Jersey gets, making the Panthers unsurprising underdogs in that respect.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will have to deal with the tough task of knocking out recent champs Chicago, who I mistakenly pegged for a huge regular season, but seem to be coming together at the right time and may get captain Jonathan Toews back from a concussion as early as Game 1. Then again, he may never play again. You guys know the drill.

Photo credit to cbc.ca (Nuccio DiNuzzo/AP)
The Blackhawks can’t be having this if they want to compete for another Stanley Cup.

The Coyotes are getting more than double the odds to win the west as compared to the Blackhawks, making Phoenix another unsurprisingly underdogged three seed. The one advantage for Phoenix that most people would agree upon has to be in goal, where Mike Smith finished in the top eight leaguewide in GAA (8th), save % (3rd), games played (8th), wins (4th), and shutouts (3rd). Blackhawks’ starter Corey Crawford, by contrast, placed 34th, 37th, 18th, 16th and tied for last in those same categories (Chicago rocked zero shutouts this season). Phoenix’s physical style should trouble Chicago a bit as well, especially considering the importance Toews has on the Hawks winning playoff games.

Smith’s success dispelled the final argument I made in November, which was that it was very early and there was still time for Smith or Florida’s trio to go sideways. That obviously didn’t happen with Smith, but neither did it happen with Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen after much-hyped rookie Jacob Markstrom went down with an injury following a promising start. As far as upside goes, most people would take the Coyotes’ goaltending over that of the Panthers, but that is not to say that Florida’s pair doesn’t inspire an average amount of confidence that the goalie will probably not blow the series. Neither Theodore nor Clemmensen played nearly as bad as Brodeur’s worst this season, which, to be fair, does seem to have been pushed back by Marty’s recent success.
A full playoff preview with predictions that will probably hit at just over 50% is on its way, but until then I’ll just point out that neither Florida nor Phoenix lost the season series to its first-round opponent. Phoenix went 3-1 against Chicago this year, with one of those wins coming by the playoff-insignificant way of shootout. Florida went 2-1-1 against New Jersey this season, with that hanger on the end being a shootout loss, not an overtime one. So, both the Coyotes and Panthers went 2-1-1 against the Blackhawks and Devils in games that are decided by a 60-to-65-minute hockey contest. And they both have home ice. That’s the positive contemporary history part of this thing.

Photo via (Joe Rimkus Jr., Miami Herald)
Super Saturday sure was for the Panthers, who celebrated the first division title in franchise history.

The negative historical trend? Neither Phoenix nor Florida has won a playoff series since 1996 — the year Florida made their stunning run to the Cup Finals and Phoenix scored the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets. The Panthers are 0-2 in playoff series since the ’96 run, and that includes a 1-8 game record and zero playoff appearances since 2000. The Coyotes are 0-7 in the first round, but three times have forced a deciding Game 7.
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