Wings and ‘Yotes Renew Acquaintances

The Red Wings staggered a bit at the end of the regular season, but finished strong with a 4-3 win in Chicago that very nearly eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champions from playoff contention (the ‘Hawks ultimately finished eighth).

From top to bottom, the Wings’ roster is littered with playoff savvy, and that experience will likely prove to be essential if the Wings are to enjoy a long run. But the most critical concern in Detroit is that their key players (most notably Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom) remain healthy.

On the other side of the ice, the Coyotes managed to reach the postseason despite having only one player tally as many as 20 goals or as many as 60 points (Shane Doan).

It’s without question a committee approach, with few stars and many former castaways (from other teams), and so the biggest key to their postseason success is netminder Ilya Bryzgalov. If he plays well, he’s capable of stealing games (and even series), but if he’s not at the top of his game, the Coyotes will be hard-pressed to compete with the high-flying Wings.

FORWARDS

Zetterberg and Datsyuk most definitely lead the charge for the Wings, but the supporting cast is a nice mix of underrated role players (Daniel Cleary, Johan Franzen) and veterans who have in the past enjoyed very high levels of success (Mike Modano, Todd Bertuzzi). It all adds up to a very dangerous forward corps, and if Datsyuk and Zetterberg can stay on the ice (Datsyuk missed 26 games this season) the Wings can compete with anyone up front.

Doan and Ray Whitney are the Coyotes’ top scorers up front, both scoring at a 60-plus point pace this season (Whitney finished with 57 points in 75 games), but the team’s success will depend on whether players like Radim Vrbata and Lauri Korpikoski bring their A-games to the playoffs.

On a pure match-up basis, the Coyotes have a very tough row to hoe, and they’ll need to overachieve in a dramatic way if they’re to advance beyond this highly difficult first round matchup.

DEFENSE

The Wings are led by Lidstrom, who has improbably managed to put together 19 consecutive seasons that ranged from excellent to magnificent. He’s been a model of consistency like few players in NHL history, without question the finest Swede ever to play in the NHL and quite possibly the finest defenseman ever to lace up skates. Perhaps he’s lost a step (he turns 41 on April 28), but Lidstrom remains one of the league’s best rearguards.

Behind him, the injury-prone Niklas Kronwall broke through with 11 goals this season while playing in 75 games for only the second time. That duo, along with Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl, will be charged with neutralizing the Coyotes’ potentially huge advantage in goal.

Former fourth round pick Keith Yandle has steadily emerged as one of the NHL’s top blueliners, posting a very impressive 59 points (including 11 goals) to go with a solid plus-12 rating. Yandle’s shot totals have increased annually since he arrived on the scene in 2006-07, and he’ll need to shoot early and often to help the Coyotes’ offense mount an attack against the Wings’ vaunted defense.

Behind him, a hodge-podge of veterans (Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, Adrian Aucoin, Rostislav Klesla, and Michal Rozsival) will have their hands full trying to slow down Datsyuk, Zetterberg and company. Without question, there’s plenty of talent on the ‘Yotes’ blue line, but in most cases their best days are but a faint image in the rearview mirror.

GOALTENDING

If the Wings have an Achilles heel, it’s in goal, where Jimmy Howard is expected to start. Howard was terrific in 2009-10, but his game slipped markedly this season. While his records in 2009-10 (37-15-10) and 2010-11 (37-17-5) were virtually identical, his other numbers shifted in the wrong direction, with his save percentage dropping from .924 to .908 and his goals-against average rising from 2.26 to 2.79.

It’s worth noting that Howard shouldn’t be solely held to blame for that statistical freefall, but it’s indicative of a larger problem the Wings have had keeping the puck out of their own net.

Howard might not need to be at his best to defeat the Coyotes, but he’ll need to be solid. Otherwise, backup Joey MacDonald will be called into action, and that’s hardly an ideal scenario.

From the day they acquired Bryzgalov, the Coyotes’ fortunes improved dramatically, the acrobatic Russian netminder providing exactly the safety net this oft-overmatched team needed.

Bryzgalov’s save percentage rose by a point from 2009-10 (.920) to 2010-11 (.921), while his increased goals-against average (from 2.29 to 2.48) was merely a factor of him facing nearly 175 more shots.

It’s unlikely that Jason LaBarbera will see any action in these playoffs; if he does, the Coyotes will most likely be waving the white flag, for their best/only chance of prolonged survival would be for Bryzgalov to deliver a stratospheric performance.

PREDICTION Red Wings in five

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