GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the moments after clinching their first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise, the Phoenix Coyotes shared a couple of hugs and pats on the helmet, then skated toward the tunnel leading to the locker room.
As celebrations go, it wasn’t much more emotion than they would have shown for any other game.
That’s because the division title isn’t what they’re after.
Sure, it’s nice, a historic moment for a franchise that began in Winnipeg. For the players, the best part of the division title is that it earns them home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Against the Chicago Blackhawks and all those snipers, the Coyotes will need any edge they can get.
“Winning the division, it means home ice—it’s something you want to hang your hat on,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Wednesday from Jobing.com Arena, where the best-of-seven series will start Thursday night. “It’s an accomplishment for our group and we’ll certainly take that, but … it’s something we need to take advantage of.”
Phoenix played well down the stretch of the regular season, winning its last five games behind the superb goaltending of Mike Smith. With a 4-1 win over Minnesota on Saturday night, the Coyotes wrapped up the Pacific Division, the first in the franchise’s NHL history.
The division crown earned the Coyotes atta boys from all over because it meant they would get to open the playoffs at home instead of facing teams like Detroit, which knocked them out of the first round the previous two seasons, St. Louis or Vancouver.
Thing is, the Blackhawks don’t figure to be a much easier opponent.
Chicago finished ahead of Phoenix in the standings, earning two more wins (45) and four more points (101). The Blackhawks have one of the most potent top lines in the league with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, and their second line can match the No. 1 for many teams.
Chicago also has an experience advantage; the Coyotes haven’t won a playoff series since moving to Phoenix in 1996, while the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and pushed Vancouver to a seventh game in the second round last year.
“They’re a good team, they’ve had a good year, and we feel we’ve had a good year, too,” Kane said. “We are confident in the team we have, so we’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a fun series. It’ll be pretty intense, playoff hockey.”
The Blackhawks played well in the final stretch of the regular season, finishing 8-1-3 despite playing without Toews.
Chicago’s captain missed the final 22 games with a concussion, but started practicing this week in preparation for the playoffs and was symptom-free after Wednesday’s workout. He’s expected to play Thursday night in the desert, though an official decision isn’t expected to be made until after the team’s morning skate.
If Toews does return, he’ll centre the first line and Kane, who had been in the middle with the captain out, will slide back to the left side. The line combined for 81 goals and 119 assists, even with Toews missing the big chunk of time at the end of the season.
“I’m right there,” Toews said. “It’s been another day where I’m getting better and better, getting back to where I want to be as far as if I’m going to play a game. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.”
He may want to look over his shoulder against the Coyotes.
While the Blackhawks play a free-and-easy style under coach Joel Quenneville, Phoenix’s forte is to grind games out any way they can to keep it close.
Against a team as fast and filled with skill players as Chicago, that means the Coyotes will have to muck it up, knock the Blackhawks down every chance they get.
It worked during the regular-season matchups between the teams—the Coyotes won three of four—and they’ll likely pick up the intensity in the playoffs, particularly with Toews coming back from injury.
“It has to come down to us working hard and do all the little things, get in their way, slow them down, bump them when we can,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said.
The subplot within these two contrasting playing styles centres on the men orchestrating them.
Tippett and Quenneville were teammates for seven seasons with the Hartford Whalers in the 1980s and spent another year together in Washington. Even as players, they took a cerebral approach to the game, often developing plays and strategies for their teams during practices.
Quenneville got his first head coaching job with St. Louis in 1996 and had a three-year stint behind Colorado’s bench before becoming Chicago’s coach in 2008. He won the Stanley Cup in his second season with the Blackhawks and is seventh in NHL history with 624 wins.
Tippett ended his career as a player-coach with the Houston Aeros of the IHL and became head coach of the Dallas Stars in 2002. Tippett led the Stars to the playoffs five of six seasons and their coach and led the Coyotes to their first playoff appearance in eight years despite being hired nine days before the 2009-10. He has taken Phoenix to the playoffs in each of his three seasons in the desert, despite the restraints that come with the team being run by the NHL.
Though they went their separate ways—physically and philosophically—Quenneville and Tippett stayed in touch over the years and remain friends, at least until this point.
“We’ve been good friends a long time and when we’ve gotten together, there’s always been a lot of talk about the structure of the game,” Tippett said. “Over the years, it’s been a good relationship and I’ve admired what he’s done and what he’s continued to do. Our friendship will be put on hold for a few days and we’ll pick it up again after the series.”
Two hot teams, contrasting styles, coaches who are good tacticians and also friends—it should be a good one.