No excuses allowed, the Blackhawks should defeat Phoenix - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

No excuses allowed, the Hawks should defeat Phoenix

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

If the Blackhawks lose their opening round series to Phoenix, rest assured, there will be some significant changes made before training camp begins in September. That is not to imply the Hawks are a mortal lock to advance to the second round of the playoffs. The Coyotes could win the series but only if the Hawks lay an egg.

The Blackhawks will fail if they get outworked and can't stay disciplined. The Coyotes will look to frustrate them and capitalize on mistakes. Chicago won't be able to play jail break hockey and disregard defensive responsibilities, that won't work. The Coyotes want to turn the Hawks into a group of individuals who play perimeter hockey. As has been apparent this season, if executed, that plan can make the Hawks look bad. What will be necessary is to stay patient, manage the puck and avoid getting frustrated. If as a group the Blackhawks can play effective hockey it won't be a question of if they win the series but rather how long it will take.

With or without Jonathan Toews the Hawks should not lose a best of seven series to Phoenix. There shouldn't be any excuses made if they fail to advance even if Toews can't perform. If the Blackhawks don't take care of business versus Phoenix, it shouldn't be viewed as a stumble but more of a flop.

An early exit by the Hawks would highlight a roster with holes which can't be coached effectively. Another opening round defeat would be a much bigger setback than last year's loss to Vancouver. It would be a black eye which would stain the franchise and lessen the fan and media buzz that started before the 2010 Stanley Cup victory. In many ways, falling to the Coyotes would be as bad as not qualifying for post-season play at all.

Call me an optimist but the Blackhawks probably still haven't played their best hockey. They can win versus the Coyotes with the same type of effort as in the last five weeks of the season. If an even better version of the Hawks show up in Phoenix on Thursday night, this series could be a short one. If that were to happen, it would bode well for a long playoff run. First things first, if the Hawks don't show the Coyotes the respect they deserve, this could become a long battle.

So there isn't any misunderstanding, I hold the Coyotes in high regard, probably more so than most. Head coach Dave Tippett is one of the best in the game. He probably does a better job of winning consistently by instilling a solid team structure than any other bench boss in the NHL. To say Tippet makes the most out of a little would not be an exaggeration. The Coyotes gain my respect because they play a true team game. That said, if both clubs play near their capabilities the Hawks will advance.

The angst concerning the Blackhawks chances center around the health of Toews and the inconsistency of Corey Crawford.

Toews is one of the best hockey players in the world and if healthy will help the Hawks a great deal. He will also show some rust. Being out for 22 games and coming back at the most stressful time in the season won't be easy, but Toews at only 70 percent can still make a significant difference.

The biggest fear for the Blackhawks is if Toews suffers another concussion setback and is forced off the ice again. That could likely mean he would be out for the remainder of the playoffs. The adverse psychological effect on the club would be difficult to measure. Toews should help the Hawks power play and penalty killing units, generally his presence will be very noticeable.

Crawford had an up and down season and has been under fire from fans. Maybe getting the starting job for the first time from the beginning of training camp didn't help Crawford. Possibly he does better when feeling pressure, if that's the case Crawford should be at his best now. Certainly after signing him to a 3-year, $8 million contract extension last May, GM Stan Bowman is hoping the same.

If stats from this season are any indication, the goalkeeping advantage goes to Phoenix and it isn't close. Mike Smith has had eight shutouts this season, which is eight more than Blackhawk goalkeepers have combined.

Smith has a stunning 2.21 GAA to go along with .930 save percentage. Crawford's numbers are more similar to a backup goaltender or one who is not participating in the playoffs. Crawford registered a 2.72 GAA, with a .903 save percentage and both figures are well below his totals from last season.

When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, goaltender Antti Niemi wasn't outstanding, but he did outplay all of his counterparts except for Pekka Rinne. Crawford needs to hold his own in the same way.

The soft goals, which have happened too often this season, can be a back breaker and they have to be avoided. Crawford has the ability to win a game or two on his own but more importantly he can't be the main reason for a loss. The same can be said for any playoff series if the Hawks hope to get to the Conference Finals.

If the Blackhawks could have handpicked a first round opponent they should have chosen Phoenix. The Coyotes aren't very physical and their power play is worse than the Hawks. That should bode well because the Chicago penalty killing crew isn't anything to write home about.

In fairness, Chicago special teams should improve with the return of Toews. The Coyote penalty killing unit is very good as they rank eighth in the NHL. Unless the Hawks power play improves it really doesn't matter who they are playing against.

If Saturday's game in Detroit is any indication, Brent Seabrook will see a good deal of time on the power play and he should be firing away from the point. Andrew Shaw and others will have to get into Smith's face and cause a commotion near the Phoenix net. That will be the Hawks best chance of scoring with the man advantage.

Shaw will be counted on at even strength as well to bother the big, strong Smith. It will take a lot of work to beat Smith and the same can be said about winning board battles. Shaw especially, but others as well, need to stay out of the penalty box. The biggest advantage for the Blackhawks is when they are playing five on five hockey.

Joel Quenneville will instill in his troops to stay on task so he can roll four lines and try to wear out the Phoenix defenders. The Coyotes defense consists of two young quick skating puck rushers and some others who don't move as well. The Hawks will have to chip pucks into the Phoenix zone and work hard to retrieve it. The fourth line for Chicago could help set the tone.

The best way to be successful against a well-coached club is to outwork them and avoid mistakes. If the Hawks can stay in control, sooner or later the Coyotes could try to be something they are not. If that happens and the Blackhawks can up the tempo of the game while staying defensively responsible, the Coyotes should be in trouble. If the Hawks aren't focused they will be similarly frustrated the way they are versus Nashville.

Earlier I mentioned changes for next season if the Hawks lose this series. Probably Crawford won't be one of the changes. For awhile, my thinking has been the same goaltending duo will be in place next fall. The Hawks have already re-signed Ray Emery and barring an unlikely trade Crawford will also be back.

Unless Blackhawk management is going to break from their model they won't pursue a high-priced goalkeeper this summer. The consistency of goaltenders is difficult to predict. The Hawks are hoping Crawford rebounds in the playoffs and returns to fine form next season.

Crawford has been compared to Detroit's Jimmy Howard. Both goalkeepers spent a long time in the minors and had very good rookie campaigns. Howard stumbled a bit last season and rebounded nicely this year. The Blackhawk front office will be hoping the same pattern holds true for Crawford.

Smith is 30-years old and has had a rocky career. After watching Smith play in Tampa Bay, my guess was he would soon be out of the league. This season Smith found a new team and has rebounded in a big way, ranking among the top five goaltenders in the NHL. The highlight of his year was setting a regular season record with a 54 save shutout.

Smith can steal a game but he shouldn't be able to steal this series. If the Hawks fail to advance, it will be because they beat themselves.

Follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia

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