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'THIS IS WHY WE PLAY'

Mike Smith reflects on his incredible 2012 run on eve of this year's post-season dance getting underway

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Call it the Seven-Year Itch.

And after rummaging around for what must seem like an eternity, Mike Smith has finally found a back scratcher. 

"This," says the Flames' goaltender, of the Stanley Cup playdowns, "is why we play. This is when the game is the most fun.

"This is what you dream of playing on the street or out on the neighbourhood rink when you're a kid. 

"These games. These moments."

The one time of year when cliché becomes real.

For the first time since 2012, since lashing the Phoenix Coyotes to his back and lugging them into the third round, Smith finds himself post-season-bound.

"I felt I had a lot to prove that year," he recalls, backtracking to 2012. "I was kinda bumping around a little bit, got traded from Dallas to Tampa. Didn't find my niche there.

"Arizona gave me an opportunity, our team wasn't supposed to do anything but we ended up reaching the conference finals.

"Everyone played so well, so hard, during that run. It's something that just bonds your together. You can't describe the emotions.

"One of the highlights of my hockey career so far, for sure."

That spring, the then 30-year-old backstopped the Desert Dogs past the Chicago Blackhawks in six to start, repelling 229 of 241 shots through the series, including all 39 in the clinching game to slam on an exclamation point.

Phoenix then dusted off Nashville in five games before falling in five to the eventual Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings.

Smith's numbers over that unexpected run - 1.99 GAA and .944 save percentage - were positively Original Six incandescent. 

 

 

Flames VP of Hockey Operations Don Maloney certainly remembers. He was the GM in Arizona at the time, the man who signed Smith to a free-agent deal bringing him to The Land of Snowbirds the previous summer.

"We should never have beaten Chicago that year,'' remembers Maloney with flat certainty. "Never. Ever. Not in a million years.

"It really started in February for Mike, though. Kinda like what (Darcy) Kuemper was doing this year in Arizona. Every game, he was just … unbeatable.

"Mike's like that. We've seen flashes of it here. We saw it last year for the first half of the season, until he got hurt. This year, from New Years on, he's been pretty consistent."

Amen, says goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet.

"Since the All Star break, Smitty has one of the best averages in the league," he points out. "We have confidence in both our guys. They're both very, very capable. And they're good together."

 

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The identity of Thursday's starter versus the Avs, Smith or David Rittich, has yet to be announced.

But the team can be confident in both men they have in net, including the veteran Smith.

"Competitiveness, as everyone knows, is in Mike's DNA," says Maloney. "Sometimes it can get him in trouble in the sense that he gets anxious to get himself involved in the game.

"He's terrific with the puck, of course. I've seen it - if he touches it 10 times there's going to be one that keeps you on the edge of your seats, where everyone has half a heart attack, right? But you live with the occasional bad in that area because there's so much good.

"We don't need Mike to be Superman, the way we did in Arizona (in 2012). We don't need him to part the waters. We just need solid, steady, consistent, give-us-a-chance-to-win goaltending.

"Same with David. Whoever plays."

 

Video: "I think guys are chomping at the bit."

 

With the memories of the 2012 run to use as rocket fuel, Smith's Seven-Year Itch is set to finally be scratched.

This is, after all, why they brought him here in the first place.

And why he came.

"As a player, you make your name in playoffs hockey," says Smith. "When you're done, it's what we all want to be known as - that big playoff guy. When the margin of error becomes so small, that's when you want to be a part it.\

"There is nothing like this. You can talk all you want. Once you get in that first game and feel the energy, the intensity, the crowd, everything just … rises.

"Until you've lived it, you can't fully understand it. We have some guys in here who've been in the playoffs and some that haven't but for all of us this is such an exciting time.

"I've missed it. Happy to be back. I can't wait to feel it all again."

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