Up until the Arizona Coyotes left on their latest road trip in early March, coach Dave Tippett barely touched the topic. Quiet and somewhat elusive, Tippett seemed, on purpose, to stay clear of the issue. That was in regard to the status of goalie Mike Smith, out since mid-December with stomach surgery.
While the Coyotes would only confirm Smith had “an upper body injury,” a common refrain among all NHL teams, Tippett, when asked by reporters, delayed the conversation. Phrases like, “Mike skated slowly today,” and “he’s not ready for game action” combined to give the impression Smith may not be back this season.
Then on the recent road trip, the 34-year-old net minder seem to skate from behind a closed curtain, and found his way to the crease. Smith made a rather astounding return to the line-up on the road trip finale Saturday, and promptly shut out the Oilers, 4-0 in Edmonton. Not only did Smith’s competitive nature keep his team in the game, but turned aside the Oilers at every turn.
“When you’re gone, you don’t feel a part of the team,” Smith told The Arizona Republic after the game. “It’s so nice to be around the guys. We have such a great group of guys in this room, and I think you miss that when you’re not in the lineup. You’re not playing. So happy to be back. Anxious. Nervous. A lot of different emotions go through it, but I’m happy we came out with the big win.”
The result was an entrance fit for the return of a conquering hero. Not that Smith, who missed 40 games, entertains such a stature, his stellar play between the pipes now gives the Coyotes a certain comfort zone. In his stead, Louis Domingue played adequately, but fell victim to bouts of inconsistency, and was pulled in one game.
Sharing The Crease
Considering Smith’s start to the season, the Coyotes had reason for hope. Working with his old goalie coach Jon Elkin and the development of speed to the team, Smith joined several optimistic voices who believed the Coyotes could improve dramatically over their wretched 2014-15 season.
Smith, who began the season on fire, gave hope and reason to feel good. This was coming off one of the most disastrous seasons in franchise history.
In his opening three games, Smith won all three, recorded a shutout at Anaheim on Oct. 14, and allowed two goals in those three contests. In one stretch from Nov. 10 to Nov. 27, the native of Kingston, Ont. went 5-1, and helped leap the Coyotes near the top of the NHL Western Conference standings.
Then, a rapid fall from grace. On Nov. 19 at Montreal, Smith sustained a core muscle injury and tried to play through the discomfort. Appearing in five games subsequently, Smith finally gave in to the pain, and underwent surgery to repair the tear. Originally thought to be sidelined until mid-February, Smith’s return was delayed about a month. Now, fresh off his 29th career shutout at Edmonton, Smith will share the net minding duties with Domingue the rest of the way.
“It was an injury you just have to make sure he can play,” Tippett told The Arizona Republic after Saturday’s game. “He has to make sure he can get out there and do the things he’s capable of doing. Talked to him after the game (Friday) night, asked him if it’s time yet and he said he’d like to give it a try.”
Now the Coyotes return to play six of their next seven on home ice. Beginning with the Sharks at Gila River Arena this Thursday night, the opponent, at this point, makes little different. Within a larger perspective, the return of Smith between the pipes, while encouraging, was nearly like a festival of good cheer.
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.