The first week of the NHL season was a nightmare and disaster.
Then, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith woke up.
After missing four games with a groin injury, Smith returned to the lineup Feb. 1 and delivered a marginal performance. That ended in a shootout loss at Dallas, but Smith was on the road to recovery.
In the back end of a home-and-home set with Dallas Saturday at Jobing.com Arena, Smith turned back the clock with a strong effort and vintage performance. In gaining his 20th career NHL shutout with a 2-0 win over the Stars, Smith’s ability to control the game was evident. His confidence level appeared to soar as well.
Smith’s puck movement and command of the first shot enabled the 30-year-old native of Kingston, Ontario to clearly control play. Those revived elements of his game demonstrated why Smith is projected to be in the running for the Vezina Trophy this spring.
“(Phoenix goal tending coach Sean Burke) told me just to be yourself,” Smith said after stopping only 17 Dallas shots. “He told me to forget the past. I felt good, and this was a better indication where my game needs to be.”
To complement Smith’s game, the defense limited the Stars to few good chances. Play around the Coyotes' net was superb and defensemen constantly cleared the puck off the boards and to center ice.
For his part, Smith showed strong puck movement and was mobile out of the crease. When presented with the opportunity, Smith was able to clear the puck off the glass and flip the disc out of harm's way. In his defense, Smith looked very much like a player in control and playing with confidence.
“This was a turnaround for him,” said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. “Yes, he looked confident and the Smithy of old.”
That would be a reference to last season.
In the 2011-12 campaign, Smith recorded 38 wins, four short of the franchise mark of 42 held by Ilya Bryzgalov in the 2009-10 season. Smith finished the year with a 2.21 goals-against average and recorded eight shutouts. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, he posted a 1.99 goals-against average in 16 games and picked three shutouts.
Smith traversed through a difficult start to the season. He allowed 10 goals in his first two games and injured his groin in Game 3 on Jan. 23. Subsequently, he sat out the next four games and returned only this past weekend in that two-game set with Dallas.
“I can’t dwell on the past,” he said. “I’m pretty hard on myself, and I need to get better. It will take time to get back to where I was last season, but this is a good start.”
If Smith plays to his capabilities and the defense surrounds him with air-tight protection, the Coyotes should present enough reasons to remain competitive.
In the Right Place at the Right Time
During training camp, coach Dave Tippett was fond of telling reporters that “we will likely score by committee.”
Translated, the Coyotes do not have a sniper nor a reliable goal scorer.
In picking up the game-winner against Dallas Saturday, Nick Johnson could be that “committee.” Johnson has scored three goals in his last four games and established himself as worthy contributor on either the third or fourth line.
“Right now, I’m getting the bounces,” Johnson said. “That’s how it works. Someone goes down and they need someone to fill in. That’s how it’s been in my career.”
Johnson signed with Phoenix as a free agent this past summer. Last season with Minnesota, the 27-year-old from Calgary picked up eight goals in 77 games. Originally, Johnson was the Penguins' fourth choice (third round, 67th overall) in the 2004 draft.
“He has really played well in the last two or three games,” Tippett said. “He is a solid positional player and that means a great deal to coaches. Fans may not see what he does, but we do.”
Johnson started the season at Portland in the AHL, and recalled on Jan. 25.
“At the start of the season, he was caught in a numbers game,” Tippett pointed out. “Since he’s been back, he’s made a significant contribution.”
A Gallant Return
Following a 25-game suspension, forward Raffi Torres returned to the ice.
Out since the third game of the Chicago playoff series last spring, left wing Torres lined up with Andy Miele in the middle and Nick Johnson on the right wing.
Playing 11 minutes, 53 seconds, Torres managed four shots on goal and lifted his game with spirit and energy. Given the aggressive way he plays the game, Torres held back many times from going after Dallas players. More often than not, he simply skated away from a potential altercation.
Still, he clearly prefers an aggressive approach.
“That’s my style,” he said. “Either you like it or you don’t. I just wanted to go out and work hard. That’s the way I dictate my work ethic.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.