Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America

It’s finally that time of year, folks.  The regular season is now meaningless history.  History will be made, starting now.  The two month grueling process of hell, otherwise known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, begins its 2012 chapter.

The Blackhawks start their run in Phoenix.  Everyone was begging for the 3-6 seed matchup for the past month.  Well, folks, you got your wish.  We get to face the Yotes.

Game 1 will need to be a statement game.  Mike Smith has been very stingy against the Hawks (and the rest of the league, for that matter) in every game this year.  The Hawks will need to score, and they will need to score early tonight.

Jonathan Toews practiced with the team yesterday afternoon and expects to play tonight.  I hate to be cynical, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  His status seems to change by the hour, which is understandable with finicky head injuries.  Assuming Toews comes back, it could give the Hawks the spark they need to score early.

The Yotes are a physical team and will get after you and crash the net.  The defense needs to make a statement tonight too.  The Hawks cannot let the Yotes win the battles in front of Corey Crawford, leading to an easy tap-in.  When you’re facing a tough goaltender like Smith, you cannot give up easy goals.  The Hawks’ defense needs to make Phoenix work hard for their goals.  If they don’t, they will not win this game or this series.

The Hawks play a quick, open game of hockey, which is the exact opposite style that Phoenix plays.  They tend to grind it out.  Due to this, Phoenix will look to physically out-battle the Hawks and, excuse my language, knock the Hawks on their asses to slow the game down (see: Minnesota Wild vs. Blackhawks, regular season games 80 & 81).  The Hawks can’t afford to get caught up in the post-whistle stupidity and goonery.  The Hawks need to keep their cool and play at their level, rather than that of Phoenix.

Lastly, if Toews does indeed come back, the Hawks will need to keep an eye on him.  Phoenix will be going after him physically.  You can bet your house on it.  It will be really important for them to find the right balance of sticking up for their captain, and not getting carried away playing grab-ass.  Blackhawks fan-favorite Raffi Torres is nearing the one-year anniversary of his demolition of Brent Seabrook.  Just hope he doesn’t try to celebrate the anniversary with a gift for Toews.

Game starts at 9:00 PM Central on NBCSN.