Smith hitting his stride in net for Coyotes
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke files a report on his pupils after every game. The current three-game stretch represents the peak of Mike Smith’s performance this season.
Following a 31-save game in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks at Jobing.com Arena, Smith has stopped 120 of 125 (96 percent) shots in his past three games, all Phoenix wins.
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“It’s definitely moving in the right direction,” said Smith, who also stopped nine of 11 shootouts attempts the past two games to turn the corner on what was once perceived as a weakness in his game.
“I feel more comfortable. I went through a week-long stretch there where I didn’t feel very comfortable and we still ended up getting some wins. That’s always nice because you come out of a game 5-4 and think, ‘Man, that wasn’t very good. I didn’t help much.’
“But as the game went on tonight, I felt like I got stronger and stronger, and that was the same way I felt in San Jose and against L.A.”
The San Jose game is still Smith’s masterpiece this season. He stopped 48 of 50 shots in a 3-2 shootout win, literally stealing two points for the Coyotes, who handed the Sharks their first home loss of the season and have now won five straight.
“Coyote ugly,” said coach Dave Tippett, when describing the win over the Sharks.
Except for Smith, who has been a marvel to watch over this stretch, even if he’s at a loss to explain it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Pucks just seem to hit you more. You’re reading the play, seeing the puck well and when you’re not seeing it, it seems like it hits you anyway.
“But it’s true in these past few games that I felt more locked in, I felt centered on my skates whereas some games you go in and feel off balance and scrambly.”
Burke said it started with the L.A. game (a 3-1 win), but the most encouraging part for the coach was that Smith was sharp in every practice in between the past three games.
“His preparation has been excellent,” Burke said. “Now we have to see him build off this stretch.”
Consistency is the commodity pro athletes strive for more than anything, but with Smith it is doubly vital because of his importance to the Coyotes’ fortunes.
There have been other issues at play this season that have led to the Coyotes’ high goals-against average, most notably sloppy puck management and defensive-zone coverage. But Smith wasn’t up to snuff early in the year. The goal he scored and the team’s continued success just masked that truth.
But with his performance the past three games, Smith has raised his save percentage to .919, which is good enough for 14th in the NHL. It’s also good enough to convince Tippett to start him again on Wednesday in Anaheim, when the Coyotes conclude a stretch where they play eight of 10 games against Pacific Division opponents (they are 5-1-1 so far).
“You’re not going to be able to play at this level every night. That’s just reality in this game,” Burke said. “But I’m hoping he can ride it for as long as possible.”
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