Recall the night of March 2, when the Calgary Flames home crowd, unhappy with a few bad goals allowed by Flames goaltender Mike Smith, decided to express their frustrations with a flurry of jeers showering down from the stands.
Despite playing wonderfully in the preceding games, and having been instrumental in Calgary’s seven-game winning streak up to that point, the polarizing goalie was still unable to stay in the fans’ good graces. A few bad mistakes was all it took, and Smith was back out in the cold, earning himself a “Bronx cheer” from the angry Saddledome crowd.
Well, fast-forward a few weeks to present day, and Smith is about the only good thing going for the Flames in this early phase of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the first three games of Round 1, Smith has been playing his heart out to deliver what is arguably some of his best hockey in a long time.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the Calgary hockey club, who for the most part, have been finding it hard to adjust to the grittier, faster style of play that is expected in the postseason.
Smith Shines on Flames’ Successful Opening Night
All looked well for Calgary in Game 1 of the playoffs (April 11). Kicking off their highly anticipated return to the postseason, the young Flames squad hit the ground running to capture the first contest 4-0 against the Colorado Avalanche.
After a period and a half of a scoreless back and forth, Andrew Mangiapane opened the scoring for Calgary at the 14:25 mark of the second frame. Shortly after that, Matthew Tkachuk capitalized on a Flames power play, extending the Calgary lead to 2-0 to finish off the period.
For his part, Smith made 26 saves off all 26 shots-on-goal by the Avalanche. As if that weren’t enough, the goaltender also found his way onto the Flames’ scoresheet. Boldly playing the puck in the final moments of the third period, Smith earned himself an assist for his pass to Tkachuk, setting the winger up for an empty-netter to further cement Calgary’s victory over Colorado.
Smith’s shutout performance had recaptured the hearts of the Red Mile. Throughout the night, adoring chants of “Smitty! Smitty! Smitty!” hailed down from the stands, a surreal experience that the goaltender himself had never experienced before in his 13-year NHL career.
“I haven’t heard anything like that before,” Smith smilingly confessed after the game, “…it kind of gives you some confidence…hearing your name getting chanted,” (from ”Smitty! Smitty! Smitty!’: Mike Smith leads Flames to Game 1 victory’ – The Calgary Sun – 04/12/19).
With the big win in Game 1, made possible, not just by Smith, but the contributions from all echelons of the Flames’ offensive and defensive lineups, the young hockey squad seemed to be firing on all cylinders. This confidence, however, was severely shaken in the next two games, as Calgary witnessed a wholesale collapse in all components of their game. All, however, with the exception of the consistent goaltending of Smith.
Flames Blow Series Lead Despite Smith’s Performance
Similar to their first meeting, the second contest between Calgary and Colorado (April 13) was evenly matched through the first period. It wasn’t until near the midway mark of the second that Avalanche forward Matt Nieto scored a shorthanded goal to give Colorado the lead. However, Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson responded just minutes later to even things up.
The dagger came in the final minutes of the third period, where the Flames, leading 2-1, slipped up and allowed the Avalanche to tie the game with less than three minutes remaining. Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon would then score 8:27 into overtime to steal the victory for the Avs.
As painful as the Flames’ loss in Game 2 may have been, it was, by-and-large a valiant performance by the boys in red. It was Game 3 that Calgary’s inexperience became alarmingly clear, culminating in a momentous thrashing that has thrown the Flames’ playoff promise into question.
Down in Denver last Monday night, April 15, the Flames were absolutely destroyed by the Avalanche at Pepsi Center. In a confused and ill-prepared start against a hungry Colorado squad, Calgary fell behind 3-0 early in the first period, with things only getting worse as the night wore on. In the end, the Avalanche routed the Flames 6-2, leaving the visitors with more questions than answers.
The lopsidedness of the affair is shown painfully by the disproportionate shots on goal, in which the Flames were outshot by the Avalanche 56-29. Despite allowing six goals on the night, the alarming volume of shots Smith faced shows just how little help defensively the netminder received from his fellow teammates.
Considering Smith made 50 saves in that contest, it is easy to see that, perhaps with the exception of a feisty Sam Bennett, the demoralized Flames squad did not do much to back up their veteran goalie all night.
Smitty By the Numbers
Thus far in this playoff series, Smith has started for Calgary in all three games. As the Flames’ main netminder, he has turned away 112 of 121 shots on goal by the Avalanche, crafting a .926 save percentage (SV%) in this recent stretch.
While Calgary as a hockey squad has been falling increasingly flat in the last two games, Smitty has managed to stay consistent in both of them. At this moment in time, as the Flames trail the Avalanche 2-1 in the series, Smith remains a bright spot for the struggling Calgary club.
From the way that the seasoned goaltender has played, compared to the atrocious showing from the rest of the Flames, it is a fair assertion that the recent hickups might have been a whole lot worse without Smith between the pipes.
In short, if this young Calgary squad wants to survive the first round, they need to turn things around, quickly. They can start by helping out their goaltender.