Coyotes goalie shines after rocky start to season

Coyotes goalie Mike Smith looks up at fans as he skates off the ice after defeating the Predators...

Coyotes goalie Mike Smith looks up at fans as he skates off the ice after defeating the Predators in Game 2 of their playoff series in Phoenix on Sunday, April 29, 2012. (Darryl Webb/Reuters)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:16 PM ET

PHOENIX - They sat in the coaches room at HP Pavilion at San Jose.

Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett and his assistants, including goaltending mentor Sean Burke, had watched their team and new goalie Mike Smith give up six goals on 38 shots through two periods against the San Jose Sharks in their first game of the season.

Forty minutes into Smith's new job as the Coyotes first-stringer and the coaches sat there and mulled pulling him, wrestled with their first crisis.

It shouldn't start this way, should it?

"I looked at Tipp and the rest of the coaches and we were trying to decide do we keep him in or pull him out?" Burke said the other day. "I said, 'This is an opportunity for (Smith) to know right off the bat he's our guy.' He went out in that third period in San Jose and, from that third period on and the rest of the year, he was great."

Burke said the Coyotes sent Smith a positive message by leaving him in the game that night and giving him the start in the next game.

"(Smith realized) what we had said to him wasn't just talk," Burke said. "We meant it. 'You're our guy. We're going with you. Here's your chance.' "

Smith, who had signed a two-year free-agent deal worth $4 million on July 1, stopped all 14 shots he faced in that third period Oct. 8.

"First game this year, I got six goals on me in the first two periods," said Smith, a 30-year-old Kingston native who has emerged as one of the game's elite goaltenders this season and is the biggest reason the franchise is in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1987.

"Them leaving me in that game and then going back to me the next game showed from Day 1 that this was the way it was going to be. Your confidence grows when you can go into games and not worry about results."

* * * * *

As July 1 and free agency approached, the Coyotes had no starting goaltender. There was no way the NHL-owned club could afford to re-sign Ilya Bryzgalov who would wind up with a nine-year, $51-million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. The uncertainty around the franchise saw to that, if Bryzgalov's flighty behaviour and playoff struggles didn't.

There was talk the Coyotes might go after free-agent Tomas Vokoun or trade for a youngster like Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings or Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks.

As is often the case, a connection from the past influenced the path.

The Coyotes targeted Smith, who had fallen to third goaltender with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Smith had a tough time in Tampa, passing through waivers Feb. 3, 2011 and playing five games last season in the American Hockey League.

Tippett knew Smith from their days together with the Dallas Stars. Tippett was the coach there when the goalie broke into the NHL in 2006-07.

Tippett remembered an athletically gifted young man who was liked by his teammates.

"When we traded Mike (in Dallas) it wasn't a because we didn't like him, it was because we didn't think we could keep him," Tippett said.

"We had Marty Turco signed long-term. Smitty was looking for an opportunity. I was very surprised when he went to Tampa and it didn't work out as well for him as he'd like.

"But last summer when his name came up, I knew him as a person and as a teammate and as a player, I just thought it would be a great fit for us."

Added Burke: "He was Plan A for us and we didn't have Plan B. I knew how well he handled the puck. I looked ... at the situation he was in in Tampa. When you put it all together, you saw he was coming into that age when guys start to mature. He had just got married and had a kid. It just looked like a situation of a guy who was ready to turn the corner."

Tippett said the Coyotes were looking for a goalie who was motivated and would grab an opportunity.

"We had an opportunity to give and he grabbed it," Tippett said.

Smith was fourth in season wins this season with 38, seventh in goals-against average, 2.21, and third in save percentage, .930.

Sounds like he grabbed it.

* * * * *

In Smith, Burke saw himself.

It has become a remarkable relationship.

Some technical adjustments were made to Smith's game, getting him to play slighter closer to the goal line and quieting his movements.

But Burke's biggest contribution to Smith's emergence as a star was how he changed the way Smith saw himself.

"I could identify with a guy who maybe was really frustrated because he knew there was more to him and just hadn't had that opportunity yet," said Burke, who played 18 years in the NHL. "Mentally I really identified with what he was feeling. 'I've got all this ability, I've got these tools, I just need to get past that point where I'm not looked at as just a backup or a guy who hasn't been able to do it.'

Smith, upon signing with the Coyotes, said Tippett convinced him that Burke could help his game.

"Burkie has changed a bit of my style but really, mentally, he has found a way to get into my head and showed me he has confidence in me and what I'm doing," Smith said. "I feel the same way back toward him. It's easy to learn from a guy who has been through a lot of the same situations that I've been through in my career. It's easy to trust in what we're doing."

Burke said he didn't try to make changes right off the bat.

"I looked at Mike as a guy who had a lot of upside," Burke said. "I know a lot of people looked and said 'he didn't do this or he hasn't been able to do that.' I put all of that out of my mind when I knew we were getting him. I said, 'hey, here's the upside: He's an athletic guy, he's extremely competitive, he's in great shape, he's a big man.' To me, it looked like the whole package was there to be a top-flight goaltender.

"It was obvious right from the start when we got him that I felt this guy could be a top-five guy in the league."

Burke worked on changing Smith's self-perception, elevating it from the insecurities associated with being a backup to the confident demeanour a starting goaltender must wear along with his pads and body armour.

"He has always been a guy who felt that was in him but was never able to get past that point where he felt he could go out and just play and not worry if he had a bad night that he would be out of the net again," Burke said. "I think that I have experience of going through a lot of different things over the years."

Burke helped Smith understand there would be nights when he might not feel 100%, and that there would be struggles.

"Being a starting goalie in this league, the good guys find ways to play well when they're not at their best or they're tired or they have a little injury they're dealing with," Smith said. "I think this year I really got over that hump. That was a huge part.

"I've had stretches this year where I wasn't feeling my best, where I hadn't played my best, I didn't think I deserved to be in the net at all and I told Burkie that. He's like, 'No, you're a No. 1 guy. That's what No. 1 goalies do, they play even when they're not feeling their best. They get thrown right back in there even after they didn't play that well. That's how you get it back.' That confidence he showed in me and the coaching staff showed in me, I hadn't had that the last few years in Tampa."

* * * * *

There was a time -- could it have been just over a year ago? -- when Smith had to be wondering if an NHL career was even in the cards for him. He was in the minors, lost behind Tampa goaltenders Dwayne Roloson and Dan Ellis.

As was often the case in times of adversity, Smith leaned heavily on his parents, Ron and Ingrid.

"My parents have been a huge influence on me my whole life," he said. "They've always said, 'Whatever it is you do, do it to the best of your capabilities and work hard at it. If you do that, everything else will take care of itself.' This was just more adversity in life. You can pout about it and give up, or you can put your nose to the job at hand and battle back. I think I've done that for a lot of my career."

When Ellis was traded to Anaheim on Feb. 24, 2011, Smith was recalled.

"Obviously, getting sent to the minors last year was a negative situation, but I think I turned it into a positive by going down there and playing well and not dwelling on what was happening but just worrying on what I can do to get back," Smith said. "I was fortunate I was able to get back up to Tampa for a team that I never thought I'd ever play for again, let alone be back in the NHL at that point -- and playing some good hockey down the stretch didn't hurt, either."

He played in the playoffs for the Lightning last spring when Roloson flagged and his performance caught the eye of Phoenix general manager Don Maloney.

The wheels were already turning, aligning to bring Smith to the desert where he would find his game.

"I wouldn't take back anything that has happened in my past," Smith said. "Everything happens for a reason. You can learn a whole lot about being a professional goaltender but, more importantly about being a good person. You go through those hard times, you can take it one of two ways: You can pout about it and not learn from it, or you can take it as a feather in your cap and learn from those situations. "I wouldn't take back those tough times in Tampa. I played some good hockey in Tampa, too, but couldn't get that level of consistency that you need to be the guy. That's no one's fault. It's about finding your way through it and learning along the way."

With Burke's help, Smith found his way.

It is a great story, an unlikely story, of these playoffs.

A goaltender finally finding his place and a league-owned underdog team finding its way in the playoffs, both under a desert sun.

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