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NET PRESENCE

Mike Smith has been turning in big-game performances all season, earning plenty of praise from his teammates

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

In the last global census, Smith remained the most common surname in the English language, with over four million bearers.

In and amongst all those Smiths, that broad-based mass of relative anonymity, one particular Smith who settled here only a few months ago has shown to be anything but ordinary.

Extraordinary, in fact.

Uncommon, more than anything.

Other-worldly, if you get right down to it.

"He's been our best player,'' declared no less an authority on these matters than Flames captain Mark Giordano late Thursday night, in the wake of another Mike Smith masterclass.

"It isn't even close."

As dawn broke Friday, Calgarians may have been shovelling away the winter's first major snowfall, but if it was any consolation, Crosby, Malkin and the Cup-champ Pittsburgh Penguins were still trying to dig themselves out from underneath a blizzard of Smith stops.

Forty-three in total, 18 of those through a ridiculously-sharp first period.

Smith, in fact, has made more saves, 404, than any goaltender currently plying his trade in the National Hockey League (which, of course, is both good and bad).

He's been among the busiest (711 minutes, 52 seconds of playing time) and best (.936 save percentage) at his trade, ended Calgary's accursed Anaheim Pond hoodoo in breathtaking style via a 43-save shutout, and is - as the captain can't stress forcefully enough - the main reason the Flames are hanging in a game over .500 as they sort through other issues.

Joining a new team is no different than being the new kid in a school classroom. You walk in, sit down at your desk and everyone in the room is staring, sizing you up, wondering what particulars you'll bring to the dynamics of the group.

"The start,'' says team goaltending guru Jordan Sigalet, "is everything. He had a couple pre-season games where he might not have been his best and some people were jumping on him early, thinking 'It's gonna be the same in goal. We're going to get off to a bad start.'

"For him to come in, silence the critics and prove he's an elite goalie who can play at that level consistently - it's just a game-here or a game-there thing - is what we needed from him.

"It's given our team a chance to slowly get better in front of him."

A glance at the 2016-17 standings - 70 points, no playoffs for a fifth consecutive springtime - may not illustrate his point, but Smith felt his final turn at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., served as an important building block for the impressive opening to his first season as a Flame.

Video: PIT@CGY: Smith snags Sheary's long-range wrist shot

"I think last year was probably the most consistent hockey I've played over the course of one year," says Smith. "Obviously the wins weren't there but personally my goal was that I didn't want goaltending to be an excuse, an issue, why we're losing hockey games.

"I just focused on that every single game last year and tried to carry that same momentum from the previous season into this year on a new team.

"Obviously you want to get off to a good start, make an impact, be an impact player, and be solid back there for this group and get (their) confidence.

"I just wanted to get that going."

Mission accomplished.

Impressively, he's embraced the change in landscape, being the centrepiece of another goaltending makeover hereabouts and operating in the high-scrutiny environment of a Canadian market for the first time.

"They're always going to compare you to who was here before, what they did, how they played, which I don't think is fair,'' reasons Sigalet.

"Every goalie's different, every situation's different. You look at (Brian) Elliott last year - he comes in trying to be a No.-1 guy, with a new coaching staff, new system, and got off to an awful start. Then it's tough to make up ground.

"It's a much different approach for me than in the past. I've always kinda had the 1A-1B thing going. You've got your guy now, and those two, Smitty and Eddie (Lack), get along good, push each other."

Video: PIT@CGY: Smith denies Malkin twice in front

Smith's reputation for feistiness, for guarding his territory zealously, is well known and, confirms his new mentor-coach, completely accurate.

"Just his overall compete and focus on a daily basis are what's been most impressive, to me,'' says Sigalet. "How badly he wants to win and even at his age (35) the desire to get better. He says he wants to treat practice like games and, I know, I know, that sounds cliche. Well, you watch him.

"He's angry when he gets scored on. But - and this is the thing - he doesn't let it affect him. You see that late goal last night ( Patric Hornqvist's deflection only 1:12 from avoiding overtime). He was mad, whether it was because the shot was was tipped or whatever. He was emotional. He didn't hide it.

"But then he bounces back in overtime and makes three big saves on three scoring chances to give us a chance to go down and get the goal.

"He's able to put things behind him, to push past it. Which is important, in this market, playing as many games as he is.

"He's just been so strong, so solid."

Common name. Uncommon game.

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