Phoenix Goalie Mike Smith's Play Could Determine Coyotes' Fate in Playoffs

Mark BrownContributor IApril 1, 2012

Mike Smith recorded his second straight shutout (against Anaheim) March 31.
Mike Smith recorded his second straight shutout (against Anaheim) March 31.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was just one of 44 saves, but when Mike Smith stopped Anaheim's Bobby Ryan with a quick glove from five feet away in Saturday's game, that represented the essence of Smith’s play at the moment, and the season.

Anaheim was on the power play, peppering Smith from all angles when the puck came to Ryan directly in front of Smith. With a power sweep of his glove hand, Smith caught the puck as quickly as the disc left Ryan’s stick, and the save characterized Smith‘s season of achievement.

The shot came in the middle of a Ducks power play early in the final period, and Smith eventually closed the door to record his second consecutive shutout, a 4-0 whitewash of Anaheim before 15,856 Saturday night at Arena.

In recording his seventh shutout of the season and stopping all 44 Anaheim shots, Smith also picked up consecutive shutouts for the second time this season after blanking the San Jose Sharks last Thursday night.

Smith also recorded back-to-back shutouts Feb. 11 at home against the Chicago Blackhawks and Feb. 16 against the Los Angeles Kings.

With the Anaheim shutout, Smith's scoreless streak reached 159:59, but remains a distance from Brian Boucher’s club and NHL record of 332 scoreless minutes over five-and-a-half games.

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Along the way, the 30-year-old has constantly won the praises of his teammates, and his play represents a principal reason for the Coyotes remaining in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

“Mike has thought about this opportunity for a long time,” said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. “The goalie is the most magnified position and when the staff has confidence in him, he rewards the group with strong play.”

Smith was a fifth-round draft pick of Dallas in 2001; Tippett, coaching the Stars at the time, first encountered Smith then. Though they intended to keep the Kingston, Ont., native, the Dallas organization decided to give Marty Turco a long-term deal and traded Smith to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tippett continued to keep Smith on his radar screen, and when Smith became a free agent after last season, Tippett immediately lobbied for his acquisition.

“We took a look at several free agents and make the determination of which one was a strong fit,” Tippett said. “In the end, Smith was a good fit for us, and his play, and interaction with his teammates, speaks about his maturity.”

For his part, Smith dismisses the number of shutouts earned this season and accolades dispensed by his teammates.

“Winning is the most important thing right now,” Smith said after the Anaheim game. “This is a huge win for us, a huge two points.”

Over the past few weeks, Smith appears to have received “a second win.”

After working with Sean Burke, the Coyotes' goaltending coach, and having more time away from the game, Smith said that combination has given him an extra energy boost.

“Practice is always big, plus the time off really helps,” Smith said. “That combination came at the right time.”

Prior to the Anaheim game, several Coyotes were cited for season awards, and Smith was recognized as the team’s MVP. Throughout the season and now in the critical final games, Smith had clearly made fans forget that distant memory which was Ilya Bryzgalov.

Ice Chips

When Ray Whitney assisted on Radim Vrbata’s power-play goal midway through the second period against the Ducks, the 39-year-old recorded his 1,000th NHL point.

Not a small achievement for a player cut earlier in his career, and by his own admission, an event not likely to happen.

After assisting Vrbata, Whitney struck 40 seconds later with a power-play goal and finished the night with two points, 1,001 in his career, and recognized as the 79th player in the history of the game to reach this milestone.

“There were times in my career when I didn’t think would happen,” Whitney said through a thicket of notepads and microphones. “Yet, at the start of this season, I believed I could reach this mark. It’s not an easy milestone to reach but I thought it was within reach.”

Whitney, who turns 40 on May 8, scored his 1,000th point in his 1,226th NHL game—the fastest to reach 1,000 points was Wayne Gretzky in his 424th NHL game.

Still, Whitney is ready to give credit for his recent success.

“My linemates (Vrbata and Martin Hanzal) is the biggest reason for me to get to the 1,000 this year,” he said. “It certainly helps when you a 30-goal scorer like Vrbata, and he’s been a big factor in helping me.”

With the goal and an assist against the Ducks, Whitney has 75 points on the season, the third-best, at this point, in his career.

A season-best is 83 points reached with Carolina during the 2006-07 season, and Whitney is now one point behind his tally of 76 points with the Columbus Blue Jackets during the 2002-03 season.

Power Play Clicking

Coming into the Ducks game, the Coyotes were last in power-play efficiency but popped in two against Anaheim and one in the previous game against San Jose.

That makes three in the past two games—goals that came in the Coyotes' desperate hour of a playoff drive.

“I think the difference is recognizing our capabilities,” Whitney said. “We don’t have the personnel to zip around the rink like other teams. So, we decided to shoot more at the net and grind in the corners. In the past two games, that’s paid off.”

EDITORS NOTE—Quotes in this story were obtained by the author after the Anaheim at Phoenix game March 31, 2012.


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