I thought the Coyotes' edge over the Blackhawks in goal with Mike Smith vs. Corey Crawford could well be the difference in their first-round playoff matchup.
So far, that's been exactly what has happened. Smith has a stellar .940 save percentage for the series, having saved 154 of the 164 shots he has faced, including 30 of the 32 the Blackhawks put on net in last night's 3-2 overtime win by the Coyotes. Crawford had so many Blackhawks fans ripping him after allowing in a soft overtime goal for a second straight game last night that he was trending worldwide on Twitter. He's now got a pedestrian-to-bad .900 save percentage in the playoffs, having saved 108 of the Coyotes' 120 shots. Phoenix scored three goals on just 19 shots last night.
While my column from before the playoffs was prophetic in the goaltending being the difference, I was way off the mark in another point I made. I said that I felt Chicago's defensemen were playing really well, and I thought the Hawks actually had an edge at the blue line. That's not been the case, as Chicago has a few blue-liners that will share goat horns with Crawford unless the unlikely happens and this series turns around.
This doesn't apply to the Hawks' top two defensemen, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Seabrook, of course, has been one of the Hawks' few heroes, tallying tying goals in the final seconds of regulation in back-to-back games. Keith and Seabrook are the only Hawks defensemen with plus ratings for the series, and I think they've both played well.
Beyond that, though, it's been brutal. Nick Leddy is obviously an easy culprit after he got caught in between near center ice, allowing Mikkel Boedker a breakaway on which he slid the game-winning goal between Crawford's wickets. It was a bad play at a worse time. But it wasn't anything unique for Leddy, who's looked indecisive and unsure of himself all series long, and really for several weeks before now. I thought Leddy was largely responsible for Phoenix's first goal last night, when a Johnny Oduya turnover gave the Coyotes a 2-on-1 opportunity. Leddy was the one, and he may as well have been a zero; he did very little to contest either Ray Whitney's initial shot or Shane Doan's hammering of the rebound into an open side of the net.
Oduya's been nearly as bad. On a night Thursday when the Blackhawks' passing as a whole was terrible, he led the way, continuing a distrubing trend of turning the puck over at an incredibly high rate. He's looked nothing like the player that made a noticable difference for the Hawks over the final several weeks of the regular season.
Niklas Hjalmarsson had a terrible Game 1, but I think he's played pretty well since. He was the defender that had a shot to stop Boedker's winning shot in Game 3, though I can't really fault the defenseman when a goaltender lets an awkward, bad-angle shot get through.
Then there is the revolving door of the Hawks' sixth defensive spot. Coach Joel Quenneville went with Sean O'Donnell in Game 1, Sami Lepisto in Game 2, Dylan Olsen in Game 3 and back to O'Donnell last night. Together they're a cumulative minus-4, with O'Donnell remarkably a minus-3 in his scant amount of ice time. No matter who has filled the fourth spot, Quenneville hasn't trusted them, as he's used five d-men for most of each game.
There are plenty of reasons that the Hawks are a game from elimination. Crawford is certainly one, and perhaps the biggest of all. Marian Hossa's absence since early in Game 3 — and his lack of an impact before that — is another. Patrick Sharp, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Brunette and even Jonathan Toews have been very quiet relative to what you'd expect from each of them — and considering I have no expectations for Brunette whatsoever, it's hard to put him on this list, but he has done absolutely nothing of any value. But don't overlook the impact of the Blackhawks' blueliners, or lack thereof.