GLENDALE -- With 59 seconds separating the Coyotes from their maiden voyage to the Western Conference Finals, the frustrated Nashville Predators called their timeout. They crowded around Head Coach Barry Trotz, plotting one final assault on the diabolical force that was about to send them home for the summer.
On the other bench, like a pitcher three outs away from a no-hitter with teammates deathly afraid to do anything to break the spell, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith was left all alone with his thoughts.
|Mike Smith |
Smith slouched his 6-foot-4 frame against the boards like a lazy teenager. He doused his curly locks with one final shower of water, staring down at the ice. Other than a nod and wink from backup goalie and buddy Jason LaBarbera, he was left alone, his mojo given a wide berth to allow him to finish what he started.
Smith made his 31st and 32nd saves of the night and his 157th and 158th of the series without incident, closing out a 2-1 win Monday night with a double fist-pump to the heavens. The only thing that could have made that final minute better was if Smith, who deftly flipped the puck high in the air and 200 feet down the ice in the final seconds, had put a little more left-handed English on it and coaxed it into the Nashville net.
He missed to the right by a few inches. Smith said he wasn’t trying to score, but it finally gave Head Coach Dave Tippett something to nit-pick.
"I just said, 'Why'd you miss the net Smitty?'" Tippett joked. "We tell our (defense) to hit the net all the time. You have to hit the net."
In a series billed as a battle of elite goaltenders, Smith closed out the series and the matchup against Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne with a flourish. He allowed just one goal – a Colin Wilson redirection that cut the Phoenix lead in half with six minutes left in regulation – over the final 172-plus minutes of the series.
He received lots of help from his courageous teammates who blocked shot after shot – 17 of them in the series-clincher – but still often found himself as the last line of defense.
Smith has faced 400 shots in 11 playoff games – more than any other goalie in the postseason. He has allowed 21 goals – a .948 save percentage – and has won 13 of his last 16 starts with five shutouts dating to a five-game winning streak to end the regular season. That streak earned the Coyotes the Pacific Division championship and home ice in three playoff series, including the conference finals against their old friends, the Los Angeles Kings.
"Smitty was unbelievable in the net," forward Radim Vrbata said. "It was a big effort by everybody, but Smitty was a huge part of it."
Like the Chicago Blackhawks before them, the Predators will sit back, think of the scoring chances they had and shake their heads. But like the Blackhawks, Nashville had plenty of praise for Smith after shaking hands at center ice.
"We ran into a goaltender that was outstanding. We couldn’t bury anything past Smith," Trotz said.
"We had a lot of shots -- but like in the other games in this series, we couldn't get anything past him," said Rinne, who allowed just three goals in the last three games but lost two of them because Smith was even better. "Their goalie was unreal, He was the difference in the series, I thought. He stayed strong until the end and their players give him a lot of help too."
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That help came in handy six minutes into the second period. With Phoenix leading 1-0, Nashville made its bid to get in the game. Roman Josi and Shea Weber pinged shots off the same post two seconds apart before Josi got a second chance with Smith down and out. But Phoenix forward Mikkel Boedker slid in front of the gaping net to stop the third try and Nashville came away empty.
And the same Phoenix team that blew five third-period leads in their first seven postseason games nailed down its third straight with a steady hand.
"Every time you either get a goal scored against you late or find a way to close out a one-goal game like that, you learn a lot from that experience," Smith said. "We learned a lot about who we are as a team. The teams that get through are a close-knit bunch who finds a way to grind out wins."
Next come the Kings, another foe with a Vezina-nominated goalie in Jonathan Quick who figure to be favored to end the Coyotes' longest-ever postseason run. Quick has been even better than Smith in the postseason, winning eight of nine games with a 1.55 goals-against average.
But the Coyotes have plenty of experience playing the role of underdog and will take their chances with the guy they have between the pipes.
"It’s another team that’s obviously not here by luck. They are a good hockey team and they’ve improved a lot," Smith said. "It’s going to be another war, no doubt."