Coyotes’ Smith in groove, even if he won’t admit it

Coyotes goalie Mike Smith has a .920 save percentage since Feb. 1.

Matt Kartozian/Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. — If you’re looking for hope that Coyotes goalie Mike Smith can return to his former level of play, maybe the guy standing in the opposite net on Saturday can offer it when Pittsburgh makes it first and only appearance at Gila River Arena.

Marc Andre-Fleury helped lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, posting excellent save percentages that were topped by a .933 mark in the 2008 playoffs. The next four seasons were a different story. Fleury bombed out in the postseason, recording save percentages of .891, .899, .834 and .883 while becoming an easy scapegoat for the Penguins’ inability to get back to the Finals.

"I think it was completely unnecessary," said Coyotes center Joe Vitale, who was Fleury’s teammate in Pittsburgh from 2010-14. "Sometimes they look for one individual to attack. There were times in the playoffs where we just weren’t good in front of him. It’s as simple as that. He bailed us out so many more times than he let us down."  

This season, Fleury is among the top 15 goaltenders in save percentage (.922) despite a March dip that coincides with a rash of Pittsburgh injuries. He leads the NHL with nine shutouts, he is ninth in goals against average at 2.23, and he is sixth in wins with 31.

Mike Smith’s first-half struggles with the Coyotes have been well documented. There was a time when he sat dead last in the league in save percentage, a tough hole to dig out of for any goalie. Like Fleury, the team in front of Smith had a great deal to do with that, but Smith shared the blame and repeatedly acknowledged his role in the team’s struggles.

The last two months have been a different tale. Since the team made its long-expected moves at the trade deadline and removed the weight of that anticipation, Smith has stopped 197 of 210 shots for a .938 save percentage. Since Feb. 1, his save percentage is .920, which would rank him No. 16 in the league.

"I’m coming out of games not worrying so much about my numbers as how I think I performed," Smith said. "It’s definitely been a mental test this year." 

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett isn’t ready to say his goalie is all the way back to expected form. But Tippett doesn’t judge Smith solely on half a season either — whether it’s the first or second half.

PENGUINS (39-22-10) at COYOTES (21-42-8) 

When: Saturday, 6 p.m.

Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale

TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus

Season series: 0-0

Injuries: Arizona — F Mikkel Boedker (splenectomy) Martin Hanzal (back surgery) are out for the season. F Martin Erat (upper body) is day to day. Pittsburgh — F Pascal Dupuis (lung blood clots) and D Olli Maatta (upper body) are out for the season. F Patric Hornqvist (undisclosed) and F Evgeni Malkin (lower body) will miss this game.

Quick facts: Pittsburgh has lost four straight games. … The Penguins are 1-9-2 in their past 12 when the opposition scores the first goal. … Pittsburgh is 15-6-3 against Western Conference opponents. … Sidney Crosby leads Pittsburgh with 49 assists and 72 points. He is tied for second in the NHL in points with the Islanders’ John Tavares.

"The body of work that I think about for Mike is since I saw him as a young draft pick coming into Dallas," Tippett said. "You can’t go on a two-month span. I’ve seen him in really good times, and I’ve seen him in some times that he’s got to get through."

That said, Tippett acknowledges that Smith has bounced back from the longest struggle the coach has witnessed in the goalie’s career.

"We’ve added a couple defenders in front of him that have helped that situation, but Smitty has certainly played better the second half of the season," Tippett said. "I don’t know if tactically he’s done anything different, but it just seems like he’s calmer in the net; just kind of letting the puck come to him instead of chasing it a little bit."

The intensity of the games Smith is playing has lessened because the Coyotes are not in a playoff chase. But Smith is also playing behind a young group of players, which has its own set of challenges.

"I think every time you pull on the jersey you’re expected you give everything you have so I don’t think the pressure changes," he said. "The season obviously didn’t go as planned, but you only get so many chances to win and when it doesn’t go as planned, like early this year, it’s frustrating because you know another opportunity just got away."

Smith admitted the trade talk that dragged on for three months weighed on the entire team, not just the players on the block. Passing the trade deadline was like removing a mental block. Even so, he’s not falling into the trap of talking about how well he’s playing any more.

"You’re only as good as your last game," he said with a wry smile. 

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