Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Calgary Flames looked like a potential Cup contender. However, the most common source of pre-playoff anxiety was their goaltending.
Ironically, through the first two games of their first round series with the Colorado Avalanche, goaltending has been the only consistently strong element of the team’s performances.
Relying on the Veteran Goaltender
The choice by Flames head coach Bill Peters to begin the playoffs with Mike Smith as his team’s starting goaltender was both a logical one and one that could understandably be doubted.
Smith turned 37 years old in March. He’s had injuries in each of the past four seasons that caused him to miss some time, though this season’s was very short term. He’s been prone to stretches of rough play, including a handful of games after which he was seemingly at a loss to explain his struggles. He’s been out-played for much of the past season by the younger David Rittich, who finished the season with more starts and wins than Smith.
But the Flames coaching staff values Smith’s ability to move the puck rapidly up the ice, speeding up the team’s offensive breakouts. On a team lean on playoff experience, it also makes a lot of sense to lean on a player with significant playoff experience in a key role – even if his last playoff appearances were in 2012.
Two Superb Playoff Performances
Smith opened the playoffs with his best performance of the season and perhaps the best he’s had since joining the Flames in 2017. He made 26 saves in Game 1, including big stops on Carl Soderberg, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon at key times with the game still in the balance. For a netminder whose routine saves occasionally elicited jeers from the Saddledome fans, having the same crowd chant his name likely did a lot to bolster Smith’s confidence as well.
He was just as good in Game 2 and perhaps more energized. He made several nice saves and even earned a minor for getting in a goal-mouth skirmish with Avalanche forward Derick Brassard in the first period. Through three periods and overtime, Smith made 36 stops and he was one of the big reasons the Flames were in a position to win that game.
The frustrating aspect of things from a Flames perspective is that while Smith was stellar in Games 1 and 2, the rest of the team was rather pedestrian. In six periods of regulation hockey, according to Natural Stat Trick the Flames only out-chanced the Avalanche in one of them (two of seven periods if overtime is included).
Father Time is Undefeated
Two thoughts arose out of the Flames’ performances in Game 1 and 2:
- Smith is playing better than he has since the beginning of his tenure with the Flames.
- At 37 years old, how many performances of this caliber does Smith have left?
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman often remarks that “Father Time is undefeated,” meaning that eventually aging curves drag player performances kicking and screaming down to their “proper” level.
Smith is playing incredibly well, and it’s incumbent on the Flames to get the rest of their game going immediately so that they can take advantage of his stellar play. Given his age and his recent history of up and down play, they simply cannot allow themselves to waste the opportunity that his goaltending gives them to potentially go on a long playoff run.