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Pacific Division notebook

Goalie Mike Smith returns to Coyotes; Oilers defense quietly getting job done

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

Mike Smith's return to the Arizona Coyotes has come at an opportune time.

The veteran goalie, 34, missed 12 games because of an injury to his left knee but has made three starts since returning Nov. 16, including Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks. He was sharp in his first two starts, making a combined 65 saves on 69 shots and helping the Coyotes earn three of four points, but was pulled against the Canucks in the second period of a 4-1 defeat. 

The Coyotes will need the sharp version of Smith during their current eight-game stretch against Pacific Division rivals, a crucial time if they want to keep in touch with the playoff teams.

"We've talked about that," Smith said. "We didn't really set ourselves up in October (2-6-0) to be able to coast. These are definitely important points every single night.

"As a goalie, I just really wanted to come in and with as young a team as we have, be a calming influence back there and not have the team worry at all about whether the goalie's going to be good or not."

Arizona's young lineup has seven players younger than 22 years old, a factor that has caught Smith's attention more than usual this season.

"It's a big challenge," he said. "When I came into the League 10 years ago, I was the only rookie on the team at the time. Now it's crazy to think you've got a team with five rookies and two or three 18- or 19-year-olds. It's mind-boggling, but saying that, they're all good kids and they work hard. It's about making sure as older guys there's an accountability factor there, to show leadership throughout the group.

Video: SJS@ARI: Smith stands tall amidst flurry of shots

"That can rub off in a positive way. There will be growing pains, but the sooner you can help those kids learn to be a good pros, the better we'll all be."

Smith sustained the knee injury Oct. 18, in the second game of the season. It was another frustrating setback, coming less than a year after surgery to repair a core-muscle injury forced him to miss 40 games.

"It was obviously frustrating, the injury, after coming to camp this year and feeling like I improved and had gotten healthy and I was where I needed to be," said Smith, who had the surgery in Dec. 2015. "Then two games in, it's a setback and I'm out for a month. It could have been a lot worse, so I'm taking the positives from that. Feeling healthy again is nice. Hopefully that's the end of (the injuries)."

The veteran of 423 NHL games was sharp against the Calgary Flames in his return (a 2-1 overtime loss) and also against the San Jose Sharks last Saturday, when he made 43 saves in a 3-2 overtime win.

"You never know coming back off an injury how your body's going to react," he said. "I knew there would be some aches and pains, but I can't really complain. I tested it and it reacted well. I felt pretty good.

"I've had this injury before, on both knees. I've gone through similar rehab so I kind of knew what to expect; how far I could push it or what kind of soreness I could push or hold back from. Initially when I was first injured, I thought it was going to be a lot worse than it ended up being. So with that mindset, the best-case scenario happened."

Smith said he's focused only on what's ahead, which includes new mask designs for this season. He's still wearing a mask from last season featuring the faces of his three sons, Aksel, 5, Ajax, 3 and Nixon, 2.

Smith and his wife Brigitte have a three-month old daughter, Kaingsley, so that mask needs an update. He wouldn't tip his hand on any revisions.

"I'm working on new masks right now, going back and forth with my painter," Smith said. "I'll have a couple, but I like to keep it a surprise."


Subtle (but important) impact

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has climbed to the top of the NHL's scoring race, but the performance of the Oilers defense has slipped under the radar.

The addition of Adam Larsson via trade with the New Jersey Devils has been given little attention, a positive indication for defensemen.

The same holds for Kris Russell, 29, who signed a one-year, $3.1 million contract in the offseason.

When Russell missed seven games from Nov. 5 to Nov. 17, the Oilers went 2-5-0. He returned from the lower-body injury and Edmonton won back-to-back games.

"I think you can see the way we play with him, a little more confidently on the back end," Oilers goalie Cam Talbot said. "To have a guy like him with his presence back there, his piece of mind, his calmness back there … every time he gets the puck, you can tell he never rushes anything. He reads the play and goes from there. And all of that's not mentioning his shot-blocking abilities, which are second to none."

Video: EDM@DAL: McDavid pots his second goal off a rebound

Russell has spent most of his time with Andrej Sekera, 30, as his defense partner.

"We have a lot of young defensemen, so it's nice to have him and Sekera manning the one pair and everyone else can read off them," Talbot said. "They bring a lot of experience and give our younger guys a lot to learn from."

Oilers coach Todd McLellan said that early results have sold him on Russell.

"I don't think it's a coincidence," McLellan said. "He does bring enough stability back there that he does have an impact on the outcome of games."


Stats pack

There are many quality faceoff men in the NHL, but none can match Anaheim Ducks center Antoine Vermette this season. Of players who have taken at least 100 faceoffs, Vermette leads the League with a 66.9 percent win rate. His lead in the category was bolstered by a tremendous performance against the Los Angeles Kings last Sunday, when Vermette won 20 of 21 faceoffs. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in more than 10 years that an NHL player won 20 or more faceoffs in a game and lost one or none. The most-recent player to accomplish that was Jarret Stoll of the Edmonton Oilers, who went 21-1 in a 3-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 4, 2006. … San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton is climbing up the NHL's all-time scoring list and may reach the top 20 this season. With an assist on Monday, Thornton reached 1,354 career points, moving him into a tie with Brendan Shanahan for 25th place. Directly ahead for Thornton are John Bucyk (1,369), Mike Modano (1,374), Brett Hull (1,391), Luc Robitaille (1,394) and Jari Kurri (1,398), who's 20th on the all-time list.


Games to watch

Anaheim Ducks at San Jose Sharks (Nov. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET; CSN-CA, PRIME, NHL.TV) -- The Ducks make their second visit of the season to SAP Center. Division games always make the best viewing and the Oct. 25 game in San Jose was a good one, won 2-1 in overtime by the Sharks on a goal from defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Edmonton Oilers (Nov. 29, 9 p.m. ET; NBCSN (jip), SNW, TSN4, NHL.TV) -- The Maple Leafs' annual trip to Western Canada begins at Rogers Place. It will be the second time this season Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, faces Oilers captain Connor McDavid, the first pick in 2015. Toronto won the first game on Nov. 1 in Toronto in overtime.

San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings (Nov. 30, 10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV) -- Games between the Pacific Division front-runners are must-see TV, and this one gets a national television audience. This the second of a back-to-back games for the Sharks, who play at home against Arizona on Nov. 29. The Kings, meanwhile, will be coming in after three days off. The Sharks, who defeated the Kings in five games in the Western Conference First Round last season, defeated the Kings 2-1 on opening night.

Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers (Dec. 3, 10 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, PRIME, NHL.TV) -- Pacific Division contenders meet for the second time this season, this time at Rogers Place as part of Hockey Night in Canada. In their game on Nov. 15, Ducks goalie John Gibson made 33 saves in a 4-1 win.

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