By Stu Hackel
Most of the stories that the world outside of Arizona has read about the Phoenix Coyotes during the past few years have been about the viability of the franchise in Glendale, a location that was doomed from the start. It’s a sad tale about an orphaned hockey club, and it’s been made even sadder by the fact that the franchise’s tenuous situation has obscured what the team has done on the ice.
That was, to some extent, the reasoning that motivated the NHL Broadcasters Association to select Coyotes coach Dave Tippett as the winner of the 2010 Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year, a deserved honor considering how he kept his players focused and competitive amidst the constant distraction and uncertainty of the club’s off-ice business. For that, Tippett deserves the award every year.
Tippett has done another good job this season, and the Coyotes — who look more in danger of departing Arizona than ever — clinched a playoff berth Thursday when the Dallas Stars dropped their game in Nashville. The coach is not the only reason the Coyotes once again found their way to the postseason. GM Don Maloney has done great work with a limited budget. Ray Whitney, who is a mere 39 years old (he’ll be 40 in a month), has had a truly remarkable campaign, his 51 assists ranking sixth in the league. His 75 points rank 14th in the scoring race.
But even Whitney’s fine play can’t overshadow what Mike Smith has done in goal.
Smith is coming of three consecutive shutouts, with his whitewash of the Blue Jackets on Tuesday setting a new NHL record for most saves (54) in a shutout. After crediting his teammates for helping him get clear looks at most of the shots, he added, “Pucks just seemed to be hittin’ me. (video) It was one of those nights where when I didn’t see it…they were finding a way to hit me.”
Well, this one didn’t just hit him.
Smith later called that “a little jammer,” an act of desperation when he found he was off-balance. He added that goalie coach Sean Burke isn’t fond of those sorts of saves. “I got lucky. It went in my glove,” he added.
Going into this weekend’s final two games, Smith is riding a stretch of 219:59 without allowing a puck into his net. However, he’s going to need to completely deny the Blues on Friday to have a shot on Saturday against the Wild at the franchise and league marks for longest shutout streak. That modern-era NHL record belongs to Brian Boucher, who produced 332:01 of flawless goaltending for the Coyotes in 2003-04.
It’s not just what Smith has done lately for the Coyotes that matters here. Because this is not a big revenue club, it has had a limited attraction for superstar talent, big ticket guys who put up big numbers, and stud defensemen who keep opponents at bay. If you subtract the charity goal that each team gets credited for when it wins a postgame skills competition, the Coyotes have only scored 202 times this season, 21st in the league. Only two teams in playoff position have scored less frequently: the anemic Kings and the Panthers. It can be argued that the Coyotes have even less offensive talent than either of those clubs. And they’ve surrendered 202.
So every game is a hard-fought affair in which each goal counts. Smith has been there, keeping the puck out and giving his team a chance to win. The Coyotes try to be pretty stingy defensively, not allowing many quality shots, just stuff from the perimeter. So when Columbus got 54 on Tuesday, Smith’s teammates were appreciative of his efforts. “He’s been great for us all year, he’s really carried us here lately” center Boyd Gordon said after the game. “He’s been making big saves for us since Game 1…He’s been our MVP all year and he’s going to be very important to us for the rest of the way.”
Not only is Smith the team’s MVP, he was selected as one of the game’s three stars 31 times this season.
His stats are impressive: 35 wins (fourth in the league), 2.25 goals-against average (fourth among goalies who have played over 40 games), .929 save percentage (third among that same group), eight shutouts (tied for third) and — for those of you who like your goalies to get involved in the game — 16 penalty minutes, most among netminders.
If that last stat has some symbolism, it’s because Smith has had to fight through some inconsistent and even bad seasons to regain some status in the goaltenders union. His emergence in the NHL with Dallas in 2006-07 opened many eyes, especially for a fifth-round draft choice in 2001. Backing up Marty Turco that season, he got into 23 games and was selected to the NHL’s All-Rookie team. When the Stars traded for Brad Richards the next season, Smith was part of the package that went the other way to Tampa Bay, which was in salary cap trouble and needed to replace Nikolai Khabibulin.
The turmoil surrounding the Lightning and their reckless ownership over the next few seasons is well known, and something that Smith and his teammates had to endure. He had his ups and downs with Tampa Bay, never playing as the team’s top goalie, always splitting the duties. When he and Dan Ellis (who had been Smith’s minor league teammate in the AHL) faltered last season, new Lightning GM Steve Yzerman made the trade for Dwayne Roloson, a deal that turned the season around for the club. Smith went throught waivers twice and was sent to the AHL for a while to find his game again, which he did.
Hitting unrestricted free agency last summer, Smith was snapped up quickly by Maloney to replace Ilya Bryzgalov. Few got terribly excited by the signing. All Smith did was prove everyone wrong. Working with Sean Burke turned out to be greatly beneficial and Burke has nothing but praise for his student, as he related in this interview from earlier this week.
“I think when he came in, he had a lot to prove,” says Burke. “He wanted the opportunity to be a Number 1 guy. Now, when the games are the most important, when there’s a lot more on the line, he’s been our best player, and arguably the best goaltender in the league the last couple of weeks.”
“I wouldn’t take back any of the situations I’ve been through in my career,” Smith told Kevin Allen for USA Today. “I’ve learned a lot about myself. This year, I’ve really grasped being a No. 1 goaltender and have that consistency aspect of it. … It’s been a fun ride.”
Smith’s recent play has Burke believing that the 30-year-old Kingston, ON, native has already raised his level of play to where it should be for the playoffs. If so, it’s going to make the Coyotes a very tough out this spring.
Of course, this spring could mark the end of the line for this team in Glendale. Stories continue to circulate (here and here, for example) about friction between Glendale and the NHL on who will own the team next and what might become of it. The consequences for the city, which some believe is nearing bankruptcy, may not be good regardless of whether the club stays or goes, unless someone comes into the picture to buy it and the Jobing.com Arena.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes try to stay focused and look ahead only to their next game. The playoffs could be in their near-term future even though their long-term future remains rather cloudy.
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