As this NHL season progresses, many pundits believe the fortunes of the Arizona Coyotes lay directly on the shoulders of Mike Smith, the team’s goal tender. Coming off a disastrous season of just 14 victories in 62 games a year ago, Smith, with recent failures behind and optimism ahead, seems to have reached a crucial stage in his career.
Here’s a 33-year-old veteran which many say is no longer capable of soaring to the kinds of heights he reached during the 2011-12 season. That’s when Smith led the Coyotes into the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings, the eventual Stanley Cup winner. Since, Smith fell on hard times and picked up a total 56 wins over his next 156 games.
In an attempt to regain past glory and salvage his career, the Coyotes let previous goaltending coach Sean Burke walk this summer and brought in Jon Elkin, Smith’s old goalie coach. Plus, Smith clearly raised his credibility and the level of his game by leading Team Canada, with 1.80 goals against average, to the World Championships this past May,
If the Coyotes are to pick themselves off the mat from a catastrophic 24-50-8 season and the second worst record in the NHL, Smith must to be catalyst. During training camp, Smith said he ironed out several difficulties and indicated, to reporters many times, “I feel good where my game is right now.”
Over this past weekend, Smith went out and proved his comments were not elements of sophistry, and carried the Coyotes to a surprising 2-0 start with wins over the Kings and the Penguins. In his first 120 minutes of the season, Smith allowed two goals. He came up with spectacular saves in the third period Saturday to hold Sidney Crosby and the Penguins off the scoreboard and preserve the win.
“(The Pittsburgh game) reminded me of a playoff game,” Smith said after stopping 27 of 28 Pittsburgh shots on net. “I knew I had to make key saves and we were fortunate to come out on top. There was a great deal of energy in the building and this one was a real confidence-booster. These two wins give us the confidence to go out and make plays.”
While Smith was busy stopping the Penguins, Pittsburgh forward Patric Hornqvist made sure Smith was not ignored. Crashing into Smith several times, Smith said he expected the Penguins to be a force around the net and come hard. Still, he was able to stop Nick Bonino in front and then slid across the crease to stop Daniel Sprong in the final five minutes.
In drawing praise for his control in the crease, coach Dave Tippett also credited the defense in front of Smith for making a clear difference in the opening two games. Anchored by Nicklas Grossmann, whom Tippett said plays a “heavy game around the net,” the defense shut down Crosby with no shots on goal and limited Evgeni Malkin to one shot. After shut out in their opening game Thursday night in Dallas, only Phil Kessel managed to hit the back of the net in the opening two games. His shot from the right face-off circle Saturday beat Smith at 5:17 of the second period.
From that point, the defense and Smith appeared to turn the Coyotes clock back to that 2011-12 season. That’s when Smith went 38-18-10, recorded eight shut outs and posted a sparkling 2.21 goals against average.
During camp, Tippett said if the Coyotes were going to climb the ladder, growth and education must be key variables. Toss in the ability to play with a one-goal lead against world class players like Crosby and Malkin and the Coyotes could turn heads in the coming weeks. Clinging to that one-goal lead late in the Penguins game, Tippett did not hesitate to put out Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Jordan Martinook, who score the game-winner by poking in a goal-mouth scramble at 7:29 of the second period, on the ice at critical times.
“At the end, I had Martinook out there against Crosby and Maklin for a reason,” Tippett said. “It’s not that the veterans were not doing their job, but these guys have earned to right to play in that situation.”
During camp, Tippett disguised his line formations very well. Not giving hints of line mates, he created, over the first two games, combinations with balance. On what might be considered his top line, Tippet had Antoine Vermette between Mikkel Boedker on the left wing and Max Domi on the right side. He placed Martin Hanzal between Tobias Rieder on the left side and Anthony Duclair on the right side. His third line was centered by Brad Richardson with Kyle Chipchura on the left and captain Shane Doan on the right. The Arizona checking line consisted of Boyd Gordon between Jordan Martinook on the left and Steve Downie on the right.
For the Penguins, coach Mike Johnston placed Crosby between Chris Kunitz on the left and Phil Kessel as his number one line. Right behind was Evgeni Malkin between Patric Hornqvist and Sergei Plotnikov.
Next up for the Coyotes is another pair of back-to-back games. They play the Ducks in Anaheim this Wednesday night and the Wild at home the next night. The Penguins now return to Pittsburgh for their home opener Tuesday night against Montreal.
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.