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DEAR SANTA ...

The only present new Flames goalie Mike Smith wants this year is a deep playoff run

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Christmastime, for these guys, arrives late. Each year, early April. But only if they're on the nice, not naughty, list of 16, that is.

And their holiday season can be as short as eight days, four games, or stretch all the way into late June, when the eggnog really starts flowing.

"Everyone says there's nothing like playoffs,'' muses Mike Smith. "And it's true.

"Can you properly express how much they mean to a player? No, not really. It's the most fun time of the year. Kinda like Christmas? I guess.

"There's nothing like a playoff hockey game.

"Nothing.

"When you're not involved, you miss it. When you're not involved you feel … cheated, somehow."

Each year for the past five, then, Smith has felt like the proverbial urchin with his nose pressed against the frost-streaked glass outside the toy-shop window at hockey Yuletide, staring longingly at all the kites and bells, hobby horses and candy canes inside.

"I remember my time in Tampa, sitting with Marty St. Louis and him telling me - we'd been beat out by Boston in the Conference finals and they'd gone on to win the Stanley Cup - and him saying: 'Smitty, you've gotta play 82 more games to get back to the pace of the playoffs.'

"That kinda stuck with.

"It's so true.

"You want to play in those games. Especially as an older player now.

"Hopefully, that changes here in Calgary."

Not so awfully long ago, Smith's first year in Arizona in 2012, the newly-installed Flames' No.-1 goaltender turned the desert back onto hockey, the Yotes surging through the post-season before losing in the Western Conference final in five games to the L.A. Kings.

His 1.99 GAA and .944 save percentage through that pass-the-smelling-salts run were positively Original Six-ish.

"The whole team that year seemed to click,'' recalls Smith. "In playoffs, you want to elevate your game. That was so much … fun. Everything is amplified. Everybody's watching.

"There are obviously players who've done great things during regular seasons but you make your name in playoffs."

Yes, springtime is when images are immortalized and reputations are forged.

"He's competitive, very demanding, of himself and his teammates,'' says former Coyotes' associate coach Jim Playfair, an assistant and head coach here at one time, of course. "There were times I had to speak to him and say 'With the young defencemen, what you're saying is right but sometimes your delivery needs to be toned down.' He understood that right away. He took on a leadership role.

"Mike's really learned to appreciate his time in the NHL.

"What motivates him is getting to the playoffs, playing meaningful games again. And with the way Brad's (Treliving) set up that group of defencemen … Brodie, Giordano, Hamilton, Hamonic. They can carry the puck up the ice without Mike, but he's going to add another level of quick exits out of the zone.

"He'll try to work with Gaudreau and all those kids. Instead of coming all the way back in the D-zone he'll have quick exits for those kids. He's going to speed up the tempo of their game.

"In Phoenix, there was a lot of turmoil. The rink. The ownership. The continual coming-up-just-short. Now that's all cleaned up. In Calgary it's just going to be about going to the rink every day in a Canadian city and everything's about the game.

"So I think you'll see Mike a little calmer in his role, a little more dialled into the foundation. I think you're going to see a real excited player.

"I think it was a smart move by Brad."

The Flames' Don Maloney knows Smith well, too, of course, having brought him over from Tampa to Glendale, Ariz., in the first place as GM.

"He's as competitive as anyone I've met in the game,'' says Calgary's freshly-installed VP of Hockey Ops. "It's interesting with Mike, he's shown flashes of brilliance, as good as anybody, and not just in that (2012) playoff run.

"There were stretches of seasons that the only reason we won games was because of him. Unfortunately he's had injuries at inopportune times. A couple of those years if he stays healthy, we're a playoff team.

"What's frustrating for top players - and Mike, remember, has played for Team Canada, he's been on all-star teams - is, by the first of November some years, he's basically saying to himself: 'We can't make the playoffs.' That's very, very difficult, knowing that for five months you have no chance.

"He's a driven guy. He wants to win something.

"In Arizona, I always felt he was thinking: 'Okay, I've got to stop the puck, make the pass, score the goal and fight the tough guy.'

"In the same period.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing him here, with the defence we have, the team, even the style of play.

"You look at his age, 35, and think 'Maybe he's getting a little long in the tooth.' But he's a tremendous athlete. I don't think age has anything to do with it. Look at Pekka Rinne last year.

"If Mike stays healthy and can just concentrate on stopping the puck, we're going to be a real good team."

D-man Michael Stone, another Coyotes' import, can't wait to renew on-ice acquaintances.

"He's so dynamic in the net. It's so nice for me to go back in my own zone and have him in control of the situation when the puck gets dumped in.

"There's a comfort level there you can't put a price tag on. He knows where we're supposed to be. I'm sure there's going to be a bit of learning curve involved but if you go to the spots you're supposed to be in, he's going to get you the puck.

"He's not a kid coming into a new situation and being that deer in the headlights. When he came over from Tampa, he had one of this best years and piggybacked us to the conference final.

"I expect Smitty to be that guy again."

Re-situated. Revitalized. Re-committed.

There isn't anywhere else Smith would rather be.

 "We've been real excited all summer. It's nice to finally to be here, ready to go.

"It's exciting to be part of this organization.

"There's a lot of hype around the team. You want to embrace that, enjoy that. And you want to make sure you do your part to live up to it.

"This was a playoff team last year and there are a lot of positive signs heading into this season.

 "I'm looking forward to having that feeling again."

 

 

 

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