Take into account the past calendar year, and the journey for goalie Mike Smith had to be agonizing.
Counted upon as a principal force in the Arizona Coyotes’ fortunes, and expectation as high as Canadian Rockies, Smith not only disappointed with his end result, but also left the organization wondering about their goalie situation.
After leading the Coyotes the Western Conference finals three years ago, Smith signed a striking $34 million contract and ever since has tried to live up to the grand expectations.
His vulnerability was realized from the start of this past season, and continued until the recent IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship in Prague.
As the tournament progressed, Smith emerged as a catalyst for the Canadian triumph.
In the end, the 32-year-old native of Kingston, Ont. seemed to carry the country on his shoulders. After defeating Russia 6-1 on May 17 to claim the word title, Smith ended his run with an 8-0 slate, a 1.50 goals against and two shutouts.
In the semi-final game against the Czech Republic, Smith recorded his second shutout of the tournament with a 2-0 victory, and then turned away only 11 of 12 shots in leading team Canada to victory over Russia and the championship.
During his 8-0 run, Smith stopped 161 of 173 shots, and clearly gained a renewed confidence.
“It’s been a tough year on me mentally,” Smith told the Arizona Republic after the tournament. “Physically, I’ve got a good handle on that, but I think mentally (I’m) going into the summer knowing I’ve played some good hockey now for three months or so.”
If the recently-completely season began different, Smith may not have been in a difficult position.
After dropping a 6-2 decision to the Winnipeg Jets on opening night, Smith could not gain any traction. By December 1, he sported a 4-11 mark and also dropped two overtime games to Washington on Nov. 16 and to Colorado on Nov. 25.
As if the end of the season acted as bookmark, Smith finished the campaign by dropping three of his final 10 decisions.
Smith ended the 2014-15 season with a 14-42-5 record, a 3.16 goals against average and no shut outs.
Based on his results at the World Championship, it could appear that last season was an aberration. Smith and the Arizona organization trust the previous hockey season remains in the rear view mirror.
“We were up 6, 7-0 in games, and it’s tough to stay mentally sharp sometimes in those games,” said Smith, who had his family with him at the tournament. “But I think that’s the biggest thing I’ll take away from it is I was able to stay composed in those games when you’re not getting tested very often and you need to come up big for your team.”
For now, Smith has repaired to Toronto for the summer and a few months of training. While the nightmare of last season is behind, Smith says the future is much brighter.
Still, the experience with Team Canada should boost his morale and confidence.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “I put a mediocre season to rest. It was nice to finish a not-very-good season off with a very good ending to the season and to go into the summer feeling good about my game again and winning, and I think that’s why we all play. It feels good to win and to have that experience and win in this way, I think that’s the biggest thing you learn.”
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Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.