Smith’s struggles continue in Coyotes’ loss

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Mike Smith didn’t address reporters after the Coyotes’ 6-3 loss Thursday night to the Blues at Arena, so it’s hard to gauge whether he was more upset with his own play or the play of the team in front of him.

Either one was fair game after the Coyotes reached the midpoint of the season with one of their poorest performances all year.

“That wasn’t our team right there,” coach Dave Tippett said.

And Mike Smith wasn’t the same goalie who lifted this franchise to its best season in the Valley one year ago.

When you analyze the six goals St. Louis scored Thursday, there’s not a single one you could fairly characterize as a bad goal. Two came on rebounds of hard shots – one that defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a chance to clear. One deflected in off defenseman Derek Morris’ stick, No. 4 was a bang-bang play after a bad turnover by forward Kyle Chipchura in the defensive zone, No. 5 was a bang-bang play on which no Blues were covered, least of all goal scorer Vladimir Sobotka, and No. 6 pinballed off several players before settling onto Alex Pietrangelo’s stick in the slot.

“They’re scoring goals when there’s red jerseys around. They’re just not doing much,” Tippett said. “That’s concerning.”

There is no question the Coyotes’ defensive zone coverage and puck management are worse than last season. Opponents are generating too many quality scoring chances. For a team once known for keeping shots to the perimeter, the slot has become an open highway for opponents.

Still, you can feel that something’s not right with Smith. It’s not that he’s allowing a glut of bad goals; it’s that he isn’t stealing goals from the opposition like he did with regularity last season. He isn’t tracking the puck as well, he isn’t managing his rebounds as well and he isn’t giving his team that boost of confidence because he hasn’t had a lengthy stretch of consistency.

“I don’t know what it is,” Tippett said. “I know some of the chances we’re giving up are better chances than we would normally give up last year. That being said, Mike would tell you he wants his save percentage to be a lot better than it is.”

General manager Don Maloney told FOX Sports Arizona recently that the club would not be negotiating a new contract with the free agent-to-be during the season because the club’s ongoing ownership saga prevents it. But at this point, it also looks like a prudent move.

In his last four games, Smith has allowed 18 goals on 114 shots. His 3.09 goals-against average ranks 39th in the NHL, and his .894 save percentage ranks 34th. Smith’s financial bargaining power is quickly evaporating in what has to be characterized, thus far, as a disappointing second season in Phoenix.

Is fatigue a factor? Maybe. Here’s what he told Dave Vest of recently.

“Early in the season, I felt physically it was more of a challenge, but as the season has gone on and you’re playing every other day, it seems more of a mental stress than anything else.”

If that’s the case, why haven’t the Coyotes played backup Jason LaBarbera a little more? LaBarbera’s start in Anaheim on Tuesday was his first since Jan. 26 against Los Angeles.

Tippett said before Thursday’s game that he talks with goalie Sean Burke every day about the mental and physical state of his goalies, adding that the games are so important in this lockout-shortened season that they felt it best to ride Smith as much as possible.

But it’s been a bumpy ride at best. Is it time to alter that thinking, or is it just a matter of getting the rest of the Coyotes to play like that bunch that left the ice last May?

“Last year for Smitty was his best year he’s had in the league,” Tippett said. “We have to try to get him back to the best year he’s had.”

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