Smith a howl of a bargain for Coyotes
Rob Longley, QMI Agency
|Mike Smith and Ray Whitney of the Phoenix Coyotes celebrate a win against the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
A year ago, Mike Smith had a closeup view of a long playoff run with the Tampa Bay Lightning, albeit as a backup.
With a new team and in a new conference, the Coyotes goaltender is playing the starring role and making Phoenix general manager Don Maloney look like the runaway winner of last summer's free-agency sweeps.
With his employers being the league, Maloney has restrictions on what he can spend and the two-year, $4-million deal for Smith almost immediately soared from prudent to solid gold.
A 30-year-old journeyman from Verona, Ont., outside of Kingston, Smith is making good on the opportunity. And it's not just what he has done through the first four games of the playoffs, leading the Coyotes to a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in their Western Conference quarterfinal.
In February, Smith reeled off an 11-0-0 run with a 1.42 goals-against average and .952 save percentage, sizzling numbers that earned him player of the month.
He ended the season with a five-game winning streak that included three consecutive shutouts.
The work of Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke likely is a big reason for Smith's success and transition from a backup to a potent starter. There could be more circumstances, but look no further than the struggles of Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov since he left Burke's nest.
Other than Coyotes bad-boy Raffi Torres and the four overtime games, Smith has been the story of the series, although not always for positive reasons. In Chicago, many felt he oversold the collision with Andrew Shaw in Game 2 that resulted in the Blackhawks rookie getting a three-game suspension.
Smith has revelled in that attention from the overheated Blackhawks fans, though he has had to work at it.
"I'm an emotional guy, but I'm learning along the way," Smith said. "Don't let the emotions get too high or too low. I'm finding ways to calm myself down and remember my job back there is to stop the puck."
And what about the fired-up fans in the United Center every time he played a puck in Games 3 and 4?
"If I wasn't playing hockey, I'd be up there with them yelling," Smith said.
Whatever it is about the Coyotes style, it certainly gives the Blackhawks fits. The grinding game that limits Chicago's scoring chances works at the other end as well, as Smith has benefited from clean looks at most of the shots he faces.
"(Smith) is a great goaltender and he's going to make the saves that he sees," Chicago forward Patrick Sharp said. "If you look at every goal we've scored it has been bodies at the net, deflections and screens. Ugly goals, that's the way we have to be successful against him.
"I think possibly we're trying to create in situations that don't call for it. A lot of goals scored in this series have been ugly ones, and I think it's a good start to Game 5, that's what we can focus on."
The story around Chicago has been the brutal play of goaltender Corey Crawford, particularly on the overtime goals surrendered to Mikkel Boedker in each of the past two games. So will Ray Emery get the call in Game 5? "We're talking about that," Quenneville told reporters before the team boarded its charter to the desert. "We'll talk about our scenario." ... No surprise here, but Marian Hossa, who was injured by an illegal hit in Game 3 from Raffi Torres, did not make the trip to Phoenix and the club is being sketchy on his status beyond Game 5 ... Lost in the excitement of Game 4 was the $10,000 fine to Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville for ripping the refs following the Game 3 shenanigans. While such a suspension is automatic, it's tough to swallow when compared straight up with Nashville defenceman Shea Weber getting a $2,500 levy for smashing Henrik Zetterberg's head against the glass in Game 1 of the Predators series with the Detroit Red Wings ... Book 'em, Garry: Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy was at Game 3 and had a law enforcement opinion on the Torres hit. "It was borderline criminal conduct," McCarthy told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Hockey is a tough game that's played rough. But you play fair, not dirty. The guy was acting insane. He was cursing the fans and pointing his stick at them."