GLENDALE -- They combined for 81 wins this season. Both finished in the top 10 in games played, minutes played, total saves, save percentage and shutouts -- and both are the focal point of teams built on defense and constructed from the net out.
When the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes meet in the Western Conference Semifinals beginning Friday, Nashville's Pekka Rinne and Phoenix's Mike Smith will be the centers of attention, in the eye of the storm and most likely the major reason one team will reach the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
|Photo by Norm Hall. |
On Tuesday, Rinne was named a Vezina Trophy finalist for the second straight season -- joining Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Jonathan Quick of the Kings -- on the strength of his 43 wins. Another potential nominee was Smith, who came from nowhere this season to carry the Coyotes to a playoff berth with 38 wins, a 2.21 goals-against average and eight shutouts.
Smith spearheaded Phoenix's first-round win against Chicago by frustrating the high-powered Blackhawks at every turn. He stopped 229 of 241 shots, held the Blackhawks to two goals or fewer in five of six games and capped the series with a 4-0 shutout in a game where his team was outshot 28-8 through two periods.
But to put Smith in as a Vezina finalist, someone else would have been left out. A tough call?
"I guess so, unless you've watched him as much as we've watched him this year," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said of Smith. "All of those guys are such good [goalies], but I can't see anybody being better than our guy.
"The funny thing is everyone just thinks he's playing unbelievable right now. Well, did you see the month of February (when he went 11-0 and was the NHL Player of the Month)? How about the month of December? He probably had about 4-5 games he would be unhappy with throughout the year. The rest of the time, he was that good all year."
While Rinne -- who celebrated signing a seven-year, $49 million contract extension Nov. 3 with a 3-0 shutout of the Coyotes -- was building his resume last season, Smith was on the waiver wire in Tampa Bay, sitting third on the depth chart and uncertain about his future.
However, Smith not only fashioned a career year in the 2011-12 season, but he's proven to be everything his predecessor, Ilya Bryzgalov, was not in the postseason. Smith was the target of boos whenever he touched the puck during three games at the United Center, and responded with three wins, allowing just four goals and admitting that all the attention and animosity motivated him even more.
He said he's looking forward to the matchup with Rinne, whom he has gotten to know through mutual friends in Nashville.
|Mike Smith |
"He's a great guy and an unbelievable goalie, just an athletic guy that competes as hard as anyone out there," Smith said. "We're going to have to elevate our game, try to get as much traffic, people and pucks to the net as we can, and hopefully we'll find a way to get a pass in."
In addition to Rinne, the Predators have plenty of offensive firepower, led by forward Alexander Radulov, a late addition to seven players who had at least 40 points this season. They also have the 1-2 blue-line punch of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and no apparent weaknesses to exploit.
The Coyotes have a belief that the sum of their parts up and down the roster makes them a tough out -- and they have Smith, a goaltender they can lean on.
"We don't have the luxury of having those highly talented players," Smith said. "But everyone is on board with what we're being taught, what we're being coached. I think the biggest thing about winning in the playoffs is playing as a group and believing in what we're doing to get us through hockey games. I think that's what's made us successful all season."