GLENDALE, Ariz. – Between the pipes this season, Mike Smith has delivered a stellar performance that not only placed him among the top five goaltenders in wins, save percentage a shutouts but made him a candidate for Vezina Trophy consideration.
He also gives the Phoenix Coyotes a coveted possession in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- a hot goaltender.
Honored as the NHL's First Star during the final week of the regular season, Smith carried that play into Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals with 43 saves, giving the Coyotes a 3-2 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Going into Game 2 on Saturday, Smith has stopped 233 of the last 237 shots he's faced during a six-game winning streak that began with three straight shutouts. He is 8-0-1 in his last nine starts and looks very much like the goalie that went 11-0 in the month of February to pull the Coyotes back into playoff contention.
Goalie - PHX
GAA: 1.74 | SVP: 0.956
A win Saturday would give Phoenix their first 2-0 lead in a playoff series for the first time in 25 years, when the Winnipeg Jets beat the Calgary Flames in the first round in 1987. Since then, the franchise had lost 13 straight playoff series, the longest drought in the NHL.
Smith does his best work between the pipes, but when he begins to stray away from the crease – that's when the fun really starts.
Coyotes fans gasp and cringe. Opposing skaters begin to salivate and teammates hope for the best. The guitar hobbyist may not be a fan of Del Shannon, but among goalies Smith is hockey's version of The Wanderer.
Blessed with tremendous athletic ability and stick handling skills, Smith spends as much time behind, alongside and well in front of his net as he does in the crease.
Sometimes, it results in a scoring chance. Sometimes, it results in a penalty for playing the puck outside the trapezoid (his 16 PIMs this season are twice as many as every other team at the position this year).
But most of the time, he frustrates opponents, defuses ticking time bombs in the Phoenix zone and becomes a third defenseman capable of putting a lead pass on the tape at center ice.
"You see him do it in (training) camp, then you see it in preseason games and you realize … he's going to keep doing this," winger Taylor Pyatt said, smiling. "It took us awhile to get used to it. I'm sure (opponents) aren't used to it. But after a whole season, you realize what a unique advantage it is for us."
The Blackhawks came out of Game 1 talking about Smith's ability to handle the puck and how they need to keep it out of his hands when they attack the Coyotes zone. On several occasions, Smith sent Chicago dump-ins out of danger as fast as Chicago sent them in.
"Whether it's shots on net, second opportunities, keeping (the puck) out of his glove, putting it on the glass rims … he comes out and plays a lot of those pucks and we have to be more efficient and effective in those areas," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said Friday. "We had some careless or not really a purpose behind some of our dumps. We have to make sure there is something behind it."
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Smith's style is so unique, it was suggested that he try to reel himself in a bit last year in Tampa Bay and do things more like everyone else did. But by the end of the year, he had lost his rhythm, his confidence, his job to Dwayne Roloson and his chance to lead the Lightning in the playoffs.
So when he signed with Phoenix and was reunited with Phoenix his season, Smith made a promise to himself: "Just be me."
"It's mostly instinct and as soon as you start second-guessing yourself, that's when you get in trouble," Smith said. "Getting out and playing the puck and being aggressive is the way I feel most comfortable. I think I got away from that a little bit last year and I don't want to be there again.
"I still screw up sometimes and usually it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out when I've made a mistake out of the net. But I've decided that it's part of what makes me successful. It keeps me in the game and gets the puck out of our end a lot."
Smith admitted to some early jitters in Game 1 and that led to him staying in the net and playing the early minutes safe. But an early soft goal from a tough angle by Jonathan Toews helped him settle in and he was close to perfect the rest of the way.
"I grew up watching Patrick Roy and he was always the best goalie in the playoffs bar none," Smith said. "He elevated his game to a new level in the playoffs and it was always a fond memory of watching those Montreal and Colorado teams and seeing him lead the way."
Smith got a taste of the postseason last year, pitching shutouts in relief of Dwayne Roloson in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston before losing his only start, allowing two goals in a 3-1 Boston win in Game 5. The atmosphere was addicting and admitted feeling the moment again on Thursday.
"It's indescribable when you're in there and the fans are going crazy and every play matters so much," he said. "It's a dream. It's the reason why you play 82 games to get in this spot. The adrenaline is flowing and everything means so much more when you are that close to being in the finals."
Last year, the Coyotes were swept by Detroit in the first round and a subpar effort from goalie Ilya Bryzgalov – who appeared to be overwhelmed by the moment – played a big role in the collapse.
Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, who lobbied hard for Smith to replace Bryzgalov in Phoenix, is confident his in-the-zone goalie is up to the challenge as long as his team doesn't lean on him too hard.
"A hot goalie has to have players play well in front of him," Tippett said. "Smitty has played very well for us all season and this last little stretch here of the regular season has been excellent. We want that continue, but we can't rely on him to carry us. We have to do it together."