GLENDALE, Ariz. – When the Coyotes and Red Wings last met, Phoenix rallied from a two-goal deficit in the final 90 seconds of regulation to post a 5-4 overtime victory.
The result evened the season series at two wins apiece. But neither team is putting much stock in that game – or the season’s other three for that matter – as they prepare for their first-round playoff series which starts Wednesday.
Eleven weeks have passed since that Jan. 26 meeting and neither the Red Wings nor Coyotes are the same team they were that day.
Detroit was still dealing with myriad injuries. Those injured this season included several of the Red Wings’ best players. Their top nine scorers have missed a combined 75 games.
“They were pretty injury-riddled there,” Coyotes defenceman Ed Jovanovski said.
Phoenix has since beefed up its lineup, adding five new players, including forwards Lee Stempniak and Wojtek Wolski, who each have 18 points in 18 games with the Coyotes.
“They’ve improved the depth of their team, there’s no question about it,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
Detroit finally started to get healthy around the Olympic break, and Phoenix revamped its roster just after, at the trade deadline. Both played their best hockey down the stretch. Since the Vancouver games, the Red Wings (16-3-2) and Coyotes (13-4-2) have the top two winning percentages in the Western Conference.
That’s where the similarities end, though.
While looking at this year alone suggests the series will be highly competitive, history favours the Red Wings.
Detroit is in the post-season for the 19th straight time and is aiming for its third straight trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Phoenix is making its first playoff appearance since 2002 and hasn’t won a series since 1987.
“If I’m coaching them I say that experience is overrated and because I’m coaching us I think experience is important,” Babcock said.
The Coyotes know Detroit’s post-season success gives the Red Wings an advantage, but they feel it’s not one they can’t overcome.
“They’ve got a lot of experience and world-class players, and it’ll be a challenge for us,” Stempniak said. “I think we’re certainly up for it. We’ve got a really good team, and I don’t think that should be overlooked.”
After all, Phoenix has been defying conventional wisdom all season. Despite former owner Jerry Moyes taking the franchise into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last off-season, starting training camp without a coach, the NHL purchasing the team when no buyer could be found that would keep the team in Glendale and its future in Arizona still in doubt, the Coyotes have put together their best season ever with 50 wins and 107 points.
“They’ve been probably the biggest surprise of the year in a good way, with all the stuff the organization went through this summer, and even not having a coach at the start of training camp, which is odd,” Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart said. “But they found a way to pull it all together and built a lot of confidence, obviously. They’ve got a good young team, and we’re going to have to be ready to play a team that’s fast and has that confidence.”
Phoenix also has the experience edge at the most important position on the ice: goalie.
“I don’t care what the guys up front are doing, … to go anywhere far and do some damage, your goalie has to be your best player,” said Coyotes forward Robert Lang, a veteran of eight post-seasons.
Phoenix will be leaning heavily on Ilya Bryzgalov to be its great equalizer. Bryzgalov finished the season in the top 10 in wins (42), shutouts (eight), goals-against average (2.29) and save percentage (.920), putting him in the conversation for league MVP. He’s also appeared in 16 post-season games and was an important part of Anaheim’s 2007 championship team.
“He’s been around good coaches,” Babcock said. “He’s settled his game down, and he’s been through the playoffs before. We’re going to have to go get him.”
In goal for Detroit is Jimmy Howard, a leading contender for top rookie after putting up just as impressive statistics: 37 wins, a 2.26 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
“He’s been great for them. You look at his numbers, they’re unbelievable,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said.
But this is Howard’s first post-season and only time will tell how he will respond to the pressure that comes with it.
“It’s like anything, you have to get in and do it. Just do it,” Babcock said. “Are you mentally tough enough? Are you going to get down or let it roll off your back like you have all year?”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.