During the first period Monday night, Mike Smith meandered from his net ever so slightly and, for no apparent reason, fell over himself. A rabid crowd of 21,636 a cheered the pratfall because he has become, in no time at all, a mortal enemy at the United Center.
Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, Smith arose from his clumsy moment on horizontal hold and resumed his customary modus operandi, that of standing on his head. He played that to the absolute hilt, as comprehensively as Terry Sawchuk or Ken Dryden ever did in this city, and thus the Phoenix Coyotes ended Chicago’s hockey season with a 4-0 clincher in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
For the second year in a row, the Blackhawks were dismissed in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, albeit with a better effort than Monday night’s score would indicate. It’s just that, for much of evening, the rink seemed to be a one-way street with rush hour traffic headed toward the opposing cage, where pucks were either smothered or repelled by Smith.
When he wasn’t a steel barricade, he was a giant sponge. Rebounds were few, and the symbiotic relationship he has with his teammates is truly remarkable. They rely on Smith, he’s confident in them, and that is why the Coyotes will advance after 13 straight postseason series losses, in Winnipeg and Phoenix, while the Blackhawks mull their grim playoff numbers: 12 goals in six games, only four in the first two periods, and only four at home, where they dropped all three starts.
The Coyotes were outshot 39-20, a statistic that flatters them because they were strictly on the economy plan until Jimmy Hayes took a boarding major midway in the third period. Up 2-0, Phoenix launched a veritable barrage on the extended power play, scoring once. Then, really piling it on, the Coyotes sent thousands of customers fleeing to the parking lot with yet another goal as the Blackhawks joined Detroit, San Jose, Pittsburgh and Vancouver among the erstwhile Cup contenders who have been excused from further action by the new wave of franchises with brilliant masked men, Los Angeles and Nashville included.
Coach Joel Quenneville said with a tinge of hope after Game 5 that his Blackhawks had not yet played their best game. Well, Smith saved his best for the clincher, fending off a first period onslaught by a Chicago team that clearly planned on Game 7 Wednesday night in Phoenix. The Blackhawks outshot Phoenix 16-2, with Smith blunting Andrew Shaw and Hayes, among the highlights. In the second period, by the time Smith stoned Brendan Morrison, the shots were 18-4. Gaudy numbers, to be sure, although Smith is so often in position, and so infrequently forced into acrobatics, it’s almost eerie how he’s there waiting for whatever you’ve got. If he were a batter trying to decipher a gifted pitcher, you would suspect Smith of stealing signs.
“He stops everything he sees, and a few he doesn’t see,” sighed Patrick Sharp, in what sounded like a recorded announcement. He’s been saying that all series, and it’s true. Smith possesses exemplary instincts, and there is ample help in front of him. When he gets a goal to work with, as he did on a power-play score by Oliver Ekman-Larsson at 13:14 of the second period (the Coyotes’ sixth shot of the game), Smith appears to loom twice as large in the net. And when Gilbert Brule made it 2-0 at 2:24 of the third, Chicago’s boys of winter began drifting inexorably toward another restless summer.
The Blackhawks, after a stirring Saturday night triumph in this sudden death-palooza of a week, felt perhaps they had seized momentum in the series. But Smith put a pin through that trial balloon over 60 minutes of regulation, and in a giddy visitors’ locker room, he praised United Center boo-birds for their passion and enthusiasm. They razzed him relentlessly and he killed them with kindness. Smith is why the Coyotes finished first in their division; he’s the reason why they aren’t finished yet in their journey.
A couple special guests were in the audience. Tim Sassone, who has covered the Blackhawks for the Daily Herald through thick and thin, was back in the building looking great after a brief illness. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan entertained friends while wearing a No. 19 Blackhawks jersey that he modeled in a group shot with his brothers in United Center bronze, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
“This is a great,” said MJ, who donned Blackhawk colors a couple times during the Stanley Cup run in 2010. “I’ll be back.”
Not this spring.