Preview: A couple years back, under owner Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks were known as one of the cheapest and worst teams in the NHL. After Wirtz’s death, and the developing of a couple young players they got in the draft, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, ending a long drought and making Chicago care about hockey again. Which, sad to say, seems impossible to do in Phoenix. Even with icing a division winner, the writing seems likely on the wall that the Coyotes will be in Seattle or Canada within the next couple years. Wherever they do end up, new fans should be happy because they’re getting a hell of a team.

Team MVP:

Chicago: Marian Hossa – Hockey fans probably most remember Hossa from his three straight finals appearances. In 2008, as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he made it to the finals only to lose against the Red Wings. That offseason, he signed a 1-year deal with the Red Wings. In 2009, he made it back to the finals only to lose against the Penguins. Many jokes were made, but that offseason he made the right choice and signed a long-term deal with the Blackhawks. In 2010, he made it back to the finals a third straight year, but was finally able to hoist the Cup that had eluded him. Now, he’s an offensive winger with criminally underrated defensive play, and in a year where the majority of Chicago’s stars either didn’t live up to expectations (Patrick Kane), or suffered from injuries (Jonathan Toews), Hossa was the most reliable and consistent Blackhawk.

Phoenix: Mike Smith – Last year, a lot of hockey experts came to the conclusion that Phoenix made the playoffs primarily on the shoulders of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who then signed with the Flyers. With no goalie prospect ready to step up, the Yotes signed former
Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars castoff Mike Smith. Many, including myself, viewed this as a massive downgrade, and began penciling in Phoenix at the bottom of the conference. As you can imagine by being named Team MVP, Smith went on to have a season nobody saw coming: 2.21 GAA, .930 SV%, 8 shutouts. Phenomenal numbers, but now Smith enters the playoffs with phenomenal expectations: (the few) Coyotes fans are gonna look for him to be as lights-out during the playoffs that he was in the regular season.

Most Wonderful Surprise:

Chicago: Nick Leddy – Acquired as a prospect from the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks have been very patient with Leddy’s development and it’s paid off big-term. At 5’11, he won’t dazzle you with hard body checks or defensive play, but his passing and playmaking skills work wonderfully when he’s paired with a defensive defenseman, like Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, or Niklas Hjalmarsson. Leddy is a player I can really see step his game up during the playoffs.

Phoenix: Ray Whitney – What if a 39-year-old forward scored 77 points in a season, and nobody cared? After a career that’s included stops in San Jose, Edmonton, Florida, Columbus, Detroit, and Carolina, Whitney signed to little fanfare with the Coyotes in 2010, a journeyman nearing the end of his career. He’s the best player on a team nobody pays attention to, and it’s crazy how little people talk about this guy despite his numbers. With 1,000 points already to his name, (only one of 79 players in the NHL’s history with that many) Ray Whitney is still a name you should know.

Biggest Disappointment:

Chicago: Corey Crawford – The Blackhawks didn’t need an elite goalie in 2010 when they won the Cup, as Antii Niemi gave them the 16 wins required to lift the trophy. The next offseason was a bit of a disaster, as incorrect paperwork meant young players were getting paid more than they should, and the Hawks parted ways with Niemi thinking Crawford was the goalie of the future. For such a great young team with so many weapons, Crawford simply didn’t play that well in net, causing some to even wonder if backup goalie Ray Emery should be Hawks starter. If Crawford can’t step up his game, don’t be surprised if Chicago looks at other options in the offseason.

Phoenix: Mikkel Boedker – The Coyotes had high hopes for this young player, drafted 8th overall and even made the cover of NHL 10 in Denmark and Norway. He played a full year on the Coyotes in 08-09, but then mostly saw AHL icetime the next couple years. This year, playing all 82 games for the Coyotes, Boedker was only able to put up 24 points, very low for a player considered to have offensive potential. Boedker may get better in a couple years, but now he’s hardly the game-changing forward Phoenix thought they had when they drafted him.

Wildcard:

Chicago: Patrick Kane – He beat up a cab driver who wouldn’t give him 20 cents back. He was drunker than a frat pledge during the Blackhawks Stanley Cup celebration. He once styled his hair into a mullet, a throwback to players of the 80s and early 90s. He’s got all the tools to be the bad-boy superstar of the NHL… except when he only puts up 66 points, the lowest of his entire career. When he’s on, Kane has the potential to be one of the best wingers in the league, but he’s definitely taken a step down this season. We’ll have to see if he can get back to his 2010 ways and lead this team.

Phoenix: Shane Doan – How many years has Doan spent with the Coyotes? He’s donned a Winnipeg Jets jersey – not the new-look Jets that arrived this year, the old Jets that moved in 1996. Every season of hockey in Phoenix has occurred with Doan as a Coyote, and no hockey player is more beloved in Arizona. At 35, you gotta believe he still has a couple of solid years left, but it’s understandable if the Coyotes get sold and Doandoesn’t want to be a part of a relocating team… again. For now, the captain of the Coyotes has already lead his team well past this year’s expectations, but he’ll need to lead them a bit further to get his first Stanley Cup.

Injury Concerns:

Chicago: Jonathan Toews – The Conn Smyth winner during the Blackhawks 2010 Cup run, Toews is yet another superstar that is currently injured, but vows to be ready for the first game of the playoffs. Before the injury, he was looking like a drastically improved player – 57 points in 59 games for a center known primarily for his defense, not offense. No player is more important to the successes of Chicago than Toews, and if he can come back from this injury, watch out Western Conference.

Phoenix: Defensemen – Phoenix enters the playoffs with a healthy lineup, but many of  their depth defenseman, such as Michal Rozsival, Rostislav Klesla, Derek Morris, and Adrian Aucoin spent the season battling various injuries. They’ve been fortunate enough to get a full 82 games out of their best pair – Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, however part of Mike Smith’s great season has been their defense, and they’ll need as many key pieces healthy as possible.

Series Prediction:

I’ve been down on the Coyotes all year, why stop now? Blackhawks in 5 if Toews is ready, 7 if Toews takes a couple games.