Can Mike Smith Be a Dominant Goaltender Again for 2013-14 Phoenix Coyotes?
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How quickly enthusiasm fades.
From the passion of an opening-night victory over the New York Rangers, the Phoenix Coyotes’ spirit appears to quickly diminish.
If the opening two games of their current five-game trip are any indication, the refreshed and rejuvenated goalie Mike Smith, who carries the fortunes of the Coyotes on his shoulders, may have fallen on hard times.
In the offseason, Smith signed a six-year, $34 million contract to remain in the desert. Asserting after last season he intended to walk away from Sedona Red, Smith changed his mind. That’s because he believed the Phoenix franchise was too unsettling to reach a reasonable resolution.
Riding across the desert on his white horse, Canadian businessman George Gosbee saved the franchise and convinced Smith not to leave. The result was a new lease on life and provided Smith with incentive and a catalyst to return to glory.
In assisting the Coyotes in reaching the Western Conference Final two years ago, Smith, like the rest of his Phoenix teammates, could not successfully traverse the NHL lockout and team scoring drought of a year ago. The experience of missing the playoffs last season did not sit well with Smith. Encouraged by offseason moves, his new contract and new ownership, Smith, a 31-year-old native of Kingston, Ont. arrived in camp ready to conquer the NHL.
“I said many times that I don’t want to talk about last season because the past is the past,” he said. “This is a fresh start for everyone, and it feels great to be back.”
In the opening-night victory over the Rangers, Smith played like the type of goaltender he displayed two years ago. At that point, he sported a 2.21 goals-against average in 67 games, recorded a 38-18-10 season and registered eight shutouts. For 16 playoffs games in 2012, he was equally stellar. Smith posted a 1.99 goals-against average and picked up three shutouts.
For Phoenix to rise among Western Conference teams and qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, Smith must equal or play better than he did two years ago.
While the win over the Rangers was astounding, Smith displayed the kind of effort needed to influence his teammates. In the Phoenix situation, the Coyotes will likely rise or fall on Smith’s shoulders. If his play is stellar, Smith has the ability to make players around him better. If he falls on hard times, he could, conversely, bring his teammates down.
For the opening week, the Smith roller-coaster ride has been less than exhilarating.
After that opening-night win, coach Dave Tippett did not get terribly excited about the future in goal, and only indicated Smith was “solid.”
If Smith answered the bell for the first game, the subsequently two games were like a nasty dream.
In allowing one goal to the Rangers, Smith subsequently gave up three goals to the Sharks on 50 shots during his next outing and five more to the New York Islanders in two periods of play on Oct. 8. Against New York, Smith gave up five goals on 20 shots and was removed.
Now, the Coyotes face the final three legs of their longest road trip of the season in unfriendly rinks. After stops in Detroit, Philadelphia and Raleigh against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Coyotes hope for a better than .500 road trip. After dropping the first two, the challenge ahead will clearly test Smith and his teammates.
At this point, it may pay Smith to slip a CD into his laptop and study the San Jose and Islanders games. The Coyotes cannot afford a tough slide so early in the season.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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