CHICAGO - Remember when the Western Conference represented the wide open spaces of the NHL, fast and full of goals and stars?
It doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?
Now it's the place where goals go to die.
Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes snuffed every scoring opportunity from the Chicago Blackhawks Monday night in a 4-0 win in which the Coyotes were vastly outplayed but clinched the NHL Western Conference quarterfinal 4-2. The franchise formerly known as the Jets now has its first playoff series win since they left Winnipeg for Glendale, Ariz.
“The hockey gods were smiling down on us a bit, giving us a chance,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said, “and Smitty cleaned up the rest.”
The NHL, which owns the Coyotes, will get the revenue from at least another couple of home dates which, given the mounting bill for Brendan Shanahan's makeup and the other expenses incurred in all those suspension videos, will come in handy.
The Coyotes will now face the Nashville Predators and goaltender Pekke Rinne in one Western semifinal while the St. Louis Blues with their goalie combo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak will play the Los Angeles Kings and goalie Jonathan Quick.
What’s the over/under in those games?
Smith continued his breakthrough season with an incredible performance at the United Center Monday night, keeping the Coyotes in a game that saw them outshot 11-2 in the first nine minutes and 16-2 in the first period. It was 22-6 in shots around the 13-minute mark of the second when Phoenix defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored on the power play on a shot from the high slot that beat Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford to the stick side.
Through the first half of the game, the United Center crowd, still displeased with what it thought was embellishment by Smith on a play in Game 2 that saw ’Hawks winger Andrew Shaw suspended for three games when he collided with the Phoenix netminder, had expended more energy booing Smith than Crawford had stopping pucks.
After Ekman-Larsson gave the Coyotes the lead, the ’Hawks enjoyed long stretches in the Coyotes’ zone, but were either stopped by Smith or muffed great chances.
The ’Hawks were handed a power play at 18:24 when Daymond Langkow was sent off for tripping, but the ’Hawks didn’t score. The Coyotes killed that power play, just as they had killed the previous 13 in this series.
“They play well around him,” said ’Hawks captain Jonathan Toews when asked what made Smith so effective. “His size, especially. Pucks always find a way to hit him in the head or the shoulder. Whatever. We didn’t get any luck, to be honest. He played great, but we had to find a way to beat him.”
“It’s just one of those games where pucks were hitting me, our guys were doing a good job of clearing rebounds,” Smith said. “Just one of those games where the ice was a little tilted the first two periods, but we gathered ourselves between the second and third periods and found a way to win a huge hockey game.”
Smith made a half-dozen brilliant saves in the game. He stopped Shaw in alone off a 2-on-1 in the seventh minute and turned back a point-blank shot by Jimmy Hayes in the ninth minute. In the second, Toews went around Phoenix defenceman Derek Morris and tried one of those soft backhanders through the five-hole. Unfortunately for Toews, Smith appears to have had a surgical procedure so as to eliminate his five-hole.
Brendan Morrison went in alone on Smith when the game was still goalless five minutes into the second, but, well, you get the idea.
Smith, the 30-year-old from Kingston, Ont., had but one playoff win -- for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season -- going into the post-season.
How far has he come? He played five games in the American Hockey League last year, which makes his journey this season all the more remarkable.
Under the guidance of Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke, Smith has established himself as a Vezina Trophy candidate.
It’s way early, but he delivered a Conn Smythe-type performance Monday night.