X-Factor: Smith's breakout year could be difference
Solid goaltending is always vital in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Mike Smith has provided that for the Coyotes throughout this season.
Goalie - PHX
GAA: 2.21 | SVP: 0.930
While many thought Phoenix would take a step back after Ilya Bryzgalov headed to Philadelphia for greener pastures, Smith stepped in and saw to it that Phoenix didn't even miss a beat.
Bryzgalov, you'll recall, won 130 games during the course of four seasons in the desert and helped the Coyotes make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2010 and 2011. He was ultimately replaced by Smith, who had never won more than 14 games in a season at the NHL level.
Signed through next season at a bargain price of $2 million annually, Smith came within striking distance of the 40-win plateau and boasted a shutout streak of more than 200 minutes during the final week of the season to assure the Coyotes of a playoff spot.
"Smitty's been unbelievable," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "Time after time, he's made big saves for us."
Should Smith carry that momentum into the postseason, it can change the complexion of Phoenix's first-round series. Smith's very best will be required, considering the competitiveness and parity that has defined the Western Conference this season. But, there's no reason why Smith shouldn't be the backbone that he's been for the Coyotes in the regular season.
"It's been an honor to play in front of our fans and fun to play in the desert this year," Smith said.