Smith assembling shutout streak under heavy duress
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When he set the modern NHL record with five straight shutouts and a 332-minute scoreless streak eight years ago, Phoenix Coyotes goalie Brian Boucher stopped 146 enemy shots in a row before one finally got past him.
Mike Smith is still two shutouts and more than 100 minutes away from Boucher's marathon mark, but the current Coyotes netminder has been a lot busier during his scoreless streak -- one which reached 219 minutes, 59 seconds and earned him an NHL record of his own after Tuesday's 2-0 win over Columbus.
Opponents have put 155 shots on Smith during that span. He's stopped them all -- many with cool control and a few that had him flailing around like he was on fire.
Add the timing of this run which has rolled into the final week of the regular season -- with the Coyotes pushing not only for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot, but the first division title in franchise history -- and the magnitude of what he's doing really starts to set in.
Smith made an astounding 54 saves against the Blue Jackets, the most in a shutout by a goalie in NHL history -- one more than Florida's Craig Anderson managed against the New York Islanders in 2008. The Blue Jackets had seven power plays and set a franchise record for shots in a game, and went home empty-handed.
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The crescendo came late in the second period when Smith, prone on the ice and out of position, thrust his glove in the air to snare a James Wisniewski shot destined for the back of the net.
"I've played with Wisniewski and when you where he is and where Smitty was … that's a goal," Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle said. "But he comes out of nowhere -- really, nowhere -- and you can just see how hard he's battling and how hard he wanted that third shutout. It's fun to watch."
But that the problem for Phoenix coach Dave Tippett: Too many of his other Coyotes are just watching. In blanking San Jose, Anaheim and Columbus over six days, Smith has been forced to make a whopping 136 saves -- a head-shaking average of 45.3 per game, which leaves Tippett both in awe of his goalie and livid that his team's defense leaves a lot to be desired at a critical time.
And with a healthy team for the first time all season, he has plenty of options on the bench.
"Smitty's been unbelievable. Time after time, he's made big saves for us and it's been an incredible run," Tippett said. "But this is three games in a row now. Right now, thinking about (winning) the division should be an afterthought. If we're going to have any chance at all, we have to play better as a group. A lot of other guys need to jump in. We have to dig a little deeper. We're going to have to figure out some things, like lineup changes."
One name that won't change is the man between the pipes. If you go back to the second period of a 4-3 shootout loss to the Sharks on March 24 -- when ex-Coyote Daniel Winnik scored San Jose's final goal at the 5:01 mark of the second period -- Smith is now at 155 saves and counting. But on Tuesday he took things to a new level.
He stoned RJ Umberger -- red-hot with 5 goals in his previous three games -- on a breakaway. He smothered a Nikita Nikitin bomb from the high slot and corralled a Derek Dorsett rebound at the post. One shot he didn't see hit him in the back, another in the mask -- it's just going that way right now.
"The team obviously wasn't at our best tonight, but we have games like that when we're not going to fire on all cylinders," Smith said. "But I still think the guys did a good job in front of me and boxing guys out when there were rebounds.
"It was fun for two periods. But it's one of those games where you can't let up or have a mental breakdown, you have to be sharp every second. And I'm feeling it right now."
But what about the ones he didn't see? And the highway robbery on Wisniewski?
"Some of them just found a way to hit me," he said with a smile. "And that glove save was more desperation than anything else. I threw up a jammer … whatever you have to do, right? It was a lucky one."
By the third period, the crowd of 13,263 was roaring with every save, chanting his name after whistles and counting down to the inevitable -- his franchise-record tying eighth shutout of the season and third in six days.
"(The chant) was a huge honor. I really appreciated that," Smith said. "It was great that this run came at home and everyone could share in it. It's been an honor to play in front of our fans and fun to play in the desert this year. Now we'll take it on the road and see what happens."
The Coyotes head to St. Louis for their next game Friday night in good position, but in need of a win and with their defense on shaky ground. Maybe they put it back together against the Blues. Maybe they are able to clinch a playoff spot with a typical Phoenix team win.