Mike Smith Was Outstanding And Hawks Not Good Enough

Chicago – In front of 21,636, the Phoenix Coyotes advanced to the second round of the playoffs by shutting out the Blackhawks 4-0 at the United Center Monday night. Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith wasn’t only the finest goalie in the contest; he was also the best player in the game by a wide margin.

The Blackhawks threw everything they had at Smith in the opening period outshooting the Coyotes 16-2. The shot differential was a true indication of the Blackhawks dominance. The Hawks carried through with the same type of effort to start the middle frame but the Coyotes found a way to score first on a power play goal at the 13:16 mark. Once the Coyotes took the lead they never looked back.

It was a humbling ending to the Blackhawks season as they were beaten 3 times at the United Center. The Hawks scored a total of 4 goals in 3 games played on home ice. The Coyotes did an outstanding job of keeping the Hawks best players off the score sheet. The Coyotes were a problem for Chicago in the regular season and to my surprise, they were an even more difficult opponent in the playoffs.

The goal total for the Hawks top 5 regular season scorers was 3. Patrick Sharp scored 1 time and Jonathan Toews had 2 goals in the series. Marian Hossa only played in 2 full games but he was held without a point. Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg did not record any goals.

Smith had a big role in frustrating the top skill players but scoring issues have been a concern with the Hawks for quite awhile.

During February, March, and April, the Hawks played a total of fifteen contests versus Western Conference playoff teams. In those games the Hawks scored on average only 2 goals per game in regulation. No doubt Smith won Game 6 and had a big hand in winning the series, but the Hawks did not close out the season having a potent offense. Many might be surprised as to how little the Hawks offense produced against better competition later in the season.

The first goal for Phoenix came after Jonathan Toews was whistled for an interference penalty. In the purest sense Toews was guilty of interference as he bumped into defenseman David Schlemko at the Phoenix blueline. If Toews would have made contact with a Coyote forward instead and he went down to the ice in the same way there might not have been a penalty issued. Schlemko going down and being a defenseman, while the Hawks were advancing the puck into the Phoenix zone, may have given the referee more of a reason to send Toews to the penalty box. That call allowed Phoenix to convert on their second power play attempt on the evening.

All series, the Coyotes have been better at getting shots through from the blueline while a screen is set in front of Corey Crawford. Martin Hanzal is a big center that was able to stand directly in front of Crawford while defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson sent an on target slap shot past shot into the net.

At the time of the goal the Hawks had a 22-6 shot advantage and the period ended with the Coyotes leading 1-0. After the power play the Hawks didn’t wilt but couldn’t solve Smith. The Hawks became more aggressive and did cause some problems for Smith by setting screens and crashing the net.

In the third frame, the Blackhawks didn’t start out as well as in the opening 40 minutes. They were then guilty of standing and watching the puck while the Coyotes were in the Hawks zone. The result was a Gilbert Brule goal at 2:24 of the third frame which sucked the life out of the United Center.

The Coyotes were patient although they were getting outplayed in the opening 40 minutes. Smith bailed them out big time and allowed his club time to wait for the Hawks to give them scoring opportunities.

Before the Coyotes took a 2 goal lead, they didn’t break from their structure and never over committed in the offensive zone. After Phoenix built a 2 goal cushion they were able to become more aggressive, but still didn’t take unnecessary chances. The Coyotes spent quite a bit of time in the offensive zone during the third period and Smith recorded a well-deserved shutout.

Joel Quenneville commented after Game 6 that the turning point in the series was losing Marian Hossa. No doubt Hossa is someone the Hawks couldn’t replace but the Coyotes suffered some injuries as well.

Maybe the outcome would have been different if Hossa was healthy and able to perform in the entire series. Maybe the Blackhawks would have defeated the Coyotes if Smith was average instead of great. Both points could be made, although we will never know for sure.

What is apparent is the Blackhawks couldn’t put forth an effective effort throughout any contest in the series. The Hawks had games where they played better than Phoenix over 40 minutes, like Monday night, but they didn’t carry the same effort over 3 periods.

The Coyotes didn’t appear to find a magic formula to start the playoffs. They were simply doing the same things that allowed them to qualify for the post season. Phoenix’s bench boss Dave Tippett outcoached Quenneville in this regard; he kept his group playing more consistent hockey throughout.

All season long my impression of the Blackhawks was they were too comfortable. They weren’t as good as their record indicated before Christmas and they struggled when injuries started happening in January.

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