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Nashville goalie prospect getting his chance to shine

by Lindsay Kramer
For most of the season, the Cincinnati goaltending act has been a harmonic symphony between a pair of rookies.

Jeremy Smith tied for second in the ECHL with a 2.63 goals-against average and posted an .899 save percentage and 23-15-2 mark. Robert Mayer was right behind with a 2.81 GAA, .889 save percentage and 19-10 record.

When Smith gets his turn, he locks himself in by picking up on any catchy song he hears that day and then singing it to himself during timeouts while skating in circles.

"It ranges from anything to anything," Smith said of his musical tastes. "I've done it since I was growing up. I sing it in my mind. It's not like I'm on 'American Idol,' or anything. It sounds really bad. As long as I'm calm in net, I guess whatever works."

For now, at the most important point of the season, Smith has gone solo. With Mayer called up to AHL Hamilton because of an injury to Curtis Sanford, the mic is all Smith's. Even if or when Mayer returns to the Cyclones, Cincinnati's playoff curtain looks like it's going to rise or fall on the strength of Smith's chops.

"I was hoping to have a good year. I guess it's been a good year," said Smith, 20. "The big thing for me is playoffs. That would be the light at the end of the tunnel. It's been good so far, but hopefully it will end great."

Smith, a second-round pick by Nashville in 2007, has learned to expect nothing but high notes like that.

He grew up in a suburb of downtrodden Detroit, but still speaks of his hometown as though he draws a check from the Motor City chamber of commerce.

"Detroit has seen some better times, but it's still a beautiful city," he said. "The town is phenomenal. They have great sports there."

Smith never might have become part of the town's sporting heritage if he didn't lighten up at a young age. He skated out early, but found that his aggressiveness was landing him in the penalty box too often. His coaches decided he needed a period of isolation in goal.

"They ended up throwing me in the net one day," he recalled. "I was a little bit of a hack. I played it like football. I hit anything that moved. My dad would shake his head after the game."

The physical skills eventually surfaced, and years later Smith picked up on the importance of painting a smiley face in his mind. The Predators set him up with a sports psychologist, and Smith tapped into that resource via some informative phone sessions.

"It gave me another tool in my toolbox. It's all a mind game at this point. Until you get out there and play, it's a mental battle," Smith said. "In the NHL, there's plenty of guys in the world who can play there. It takes a great mind to be able to. It always helps to talk to somebody else and for them to pick apart your brain. It helped me to open up a little bit."

When the time for talking was done, Smith was all action. He made his pro debut with a shutout of Johnstown and produced a 1.51 GAA and .931 save percentage through his first four starts.

"Even though it's a different level, it's the same techniques, the same saves. You don't want to doubt yourself," Smith said.

"He's a happy-go-lucky kid. He's been pretty consistent from Day 1. He's learning what it takes to be a pro," said Cyclones coach Chuck Weber. "The biggest thing he's found is the day-in and day-out habits of what it takes to be ready for a professional schedule."

That's a challenge made easier when you're the day-to-day goalie, but Smith hasn't had that luxury. Smith has gotten a shade more of the action -- 42 games to Mayer's 31 -- but the fortunate Weber has been around long enough to know when you get two good prospects in net, you milk them both.

"I think to start the year you always wonder what you're getting yourself into," he said of relying on two rookies. "But it's been good. They've become friends. They push each other."

Smith figures if he keeps holding up his end of the bargain, minutes won't be an issue for him.

"As long as I do my job, hopefully we'll win games," he said. "Every night as the goalie, you want to be in the net, the guy the guys depend on. It's kind of tough (splitting time). But then again, when you look back on it, it's all mental. You're in there when your coach gives you the nod. I don't decide who goes in. Neither does Robert."

Sometimes that issue is left up to circumstances. With Mayer either sticking in Hamilton or returning to Cincinnati after a stretch of inactivity, Smith looks like the netminder who gets first serve in the playoffs. Whatever odd songs happen to race through his mind during games, the rest of the Cyclones would be well served to clear their throats and join the chorus.

"When playoffs come, everything is stepped up a whole other level," Smith said. "It's fun. But when I get out there it's the same mindset. Even through all that intensity, there will still be that same tune playing in the background. It's worked so far. Why stop now?"

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