For the first quarter of the season, no one within the Phoenix Coyotes organization seems to miss Ilya Bryzgalov, who departed for the Philadelphia Flyers.
There were no divisions in the locker room associated with Bryzgalov, no alienation of players and media and no bi-polar moods of joy and depression.
All seems to be well these days in the desert and the main reason is the play of Mike Smith, the goaltender brought in to replace Bryzgalov.
Having labored in Dallas and Tampa Bay previously and having played for present Phoenix coach Dave Tippett before, Smith brought an entirely new disposition and fresh approach. The result is the players’ adulation for their new goalie and a stellar effort thus far this season.
Smith has already tied a season-high with two shutouts thus far and his goals against average of 2.19 is below his best of 2.23 with the Stars in 2006-07. For 180 NHL games, he has 13 shutouts, the last one recorded Nov. 26 at home against Dallas.
“What I like about Mike is his consistency and how he handles himself,” Tippett said after the Dallas shutout. “It’s about handling himself around the other players and his impact on other players. He has a high expectation of how to play this game and he’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.”
For now, Smith’s influence in the locker room and on the ice is a clear departure from Bryzgalov. After wins, Smith is the first to credit teammates and likes to quietly slip into the background.
Following the 26-save shutout over Dallas, Smith went out of his way to praise overall team play and suggested his effort was secondary.
“The guys in front of me were great,” Smith said. “They cleared the puck and I was able to see the puck all night. They had my back and that’s what it takes to win hockey games.”
Responding from a 5-0 defeat to Vancouver at home Nov. 25, Smith said the difference between the two games was like night and day.
“Two different games, totally,” he said. “[Against Dallas], we played a complete game and played like we needed to win. We stuck to our game plan and the guys showed character and leadership.”
In earning his second whitewash of the season, Smith is changing the way Phoenix does business. No longer do the Coyotes rely on the volatile Bryzgalov between the pipes, but rather the team-oriented Smith. A comfortable fit in the Phoenix dressing room, Smith continues to be an important variable in deciding the fate of the Coyotes' season.
Yet, an important question remains.
For the remaining four months of the season, there is the issue of durability.
Smith has never played in more than 42 NHL games in any season and through games of Nov. 25, the 6-foot-4 native of Kingston, Ont. has played in 18 of the Coyotes first 22 games. Tippett put him in back-to-back games against the Canucks and Stars on Nov. 25 and 26, and that is the second of 13 back-to-back contests for Phoenix this season.
In December, the Coyotes have four back-to-back sets with games at Chicago and Nashville (Dec. 5-6), at Anaheim (Dec. 15) and home with Edmonton (Dec. 16), at Florida and Carolina (Dec. 20-21) and Boston at home (Dec. 28) and at Colorado (Dec. 29).
Smith will likely experience double duty in several of these sets.
On the Road Again
Following a three-game homestand with wins over Anaheim and Dallas and a loss to Vancouver, Phoenix now plays six of its next eight on the road. In December, they have six games at Jobing.com Arena and 10 on the road.
Of the six at home, three opponents are from the Eastern Conference. The Flyers skate into the desert on Dec. 3 and are followed by the Rangers on Dec. 17 and the Bruins on Dec. 28.
Ring of Honor Expands
Phoenix will induct former Coyotes captain Keith Tkachuk and former assistant captain Jeremy Roenick into the Coyotes Ring of Honor this season. Tkachuk will be honored when the Coyotes host the St. Louis Blues on Friday, Dec. 23 and Roenick’s night will take place on Saturday, Feb. 11 when the Coyotes host the Chicago Blackhawks.
Tkachuk (7) and Roenick (97) will become the sixth and seventh players respectively to be inducted into the Coyotes Ring of Honor, joining Wayne Gretzky (99), Bobby Hull (9), Thomas Steen (25), Dale Hawerchuk (10) and Teppo Numminen (27).
Tkachuk was born in Melrose, Massachusetts and was drafted in the first round, 19th overall, by the Winnipeg Jets. He represented the U.S. Olympic team in 1991 and 1992 and played his first full season with the Jets in 1992-93. .
A four-time member of the U.S Olympic Team (1992, 1998, 2002, 2006) and member of the U.S. 1996 World Cup-winning team, Tkachuk also played nine seasons with the St. Louis Blues and 18 games with the Atlanta Thrashers after leaving the Coyotes in 2001.
Heading into the 2011-12 season, Tkachuk ranked 30th on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring leaders list (538) and 59th on the NHL’s all-time point leaders list (1,065). He will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Chicago on December 12, 2011.
In 20 NHL seasons with Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Jose, Roenick played in 1,363 NHL games, collecting 513 goals, 703 assists, 1,216 points and 1,463 penalty minutes.
The nine-time NHL All-Star, two-time U.S. Olympian (1998 and 2002) and Canada Cup (1991) participant currently ranks 36th on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring list (513), 49th on the NHL’s all-time assist leaders list (703) and 40th on the NHL’s all-time point scoring list (1,216). He is one of four U.S. born players to score 500 or more goals and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.