Smith, Rinne share second-round spotlight

According to Nashville legend, Pekka Rinne played so little

in his homeland of Finland that the Predators’ scout who discovered him based

his reports on what he saw in warm-ups.

According to actual league transactions, Mike Smith was waived by the Tampa Bay

Lightning almost 14 months ago because he was the third choice behind starter

Dwayne Roloson and backup Dan Ellis.

Maybe it was a simple change of scenery that altered the course of these two

goalies’ careers. Maybe they’re in the right systems with the right coaches and

right players in front of them. Maybe they’re finally realizing their

potential. Maybe it’s all of the above.

But as the Coyotes prepare to face the Predators in the Western Conference

semifinals, the central storyline of this series revolves around two

goaltenders playing at a world-class level.

“Those are your hopes when you bring in a goalie — that he comes in and plays

at that level,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Our mindset at the start of

the year was that we needed to have top-10 goaltending in the league to

compete. Smitty’s really taken care of that end of things.”

As the Coyotes entered the postseason, their fans, the local media, Tippett and

general manager Don Maloney all held their breath, wondering of Smith could

follow up an impressive regular season with an even better postseason. In other

words, could he do what his predecessor, Ilya Bryzgalov, could not? contributed to this story.

He already has. Entering Tuesday, among goalies with more than one playoff game

played, Smith is third in the league in postseason save percentage (.950) and fifth

in goals against average (1.81) despite facing a league-high 241 shots, 25 more

than his closest competitor, Washington’s Braden Holtby, and 51 more than the

next guy, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.

“There’s not a lot of time to think out there,” Smith said with a wry smile,

“but maybe that’s a good thing. Just read and react.”

We’ve driven this point home many times since the start of the 2011-12 season.

It was clear throughout the year that Maloney’s decision to let Bryzgalov walk

via free agency in favor of Smith was a good one.

Had it not been for Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s complete meltdown in

the postseason, Bryzgalov would be facing heavy criticism from the notoriously

tough Philadelphia media. He ranks 18th out of 19 postseason goalies in save

percentage (.871) and goals against average (3.89), besting only Fleury, who he

just beat in the first round.

Bryzgalov signed a nine-year, $51 million deal with the Flyers. Smith signed a

two-year, $4 million deal with the Coyotes. So Maloney got value while

reaffirming the notion that his coach is a superb evaluator of talent.

“I had Smitty as a young player, so I saw how he conducted himself — what kind

of player he was, what kind of person he was,” said Tippett, who coached a

young Smith in Dallas. “For whatever reason, his potential just hadn’t come to

fruition yet. But coming in here with the background I had with him and the way

I like to play and Sean Burke as his goalie coach, I just thought he’d be a

great fit, and he’s just taken the ball and run with it.”

Rinne has done the same. He’s one of three finalists for the Vezina for the second season in a row after posting a .923 save percentage, the

seventh-best mark in the league. Through five games of the playoffs, he is

fifth in save percentage (.944) and tied with Smith in goals against average.

“You saw in practices he was a good goalie every time he got a chance to

play,” said Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who was Rinne’s

teammate in Finland’s elite league, playing for Karpat Oulu. “You could

tell by the way he approached hockey, his life and the way he works, it’s going

to do really good things for him.

“For sure, as a goalie or even as a player, you always need a little bit of

luck to get over that hump to be a really top player, but he had all the tools.

His work habits were his strength.”

Rinne signed a seven-year, $49 million deal in November. Nobody is talking

about Smith’s contract yet. But, with one year left on his deal and considering

the performance he has turned in this season, a contract extension this

offseason might warrant discussion.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy a goaltending exhibition between two guys

at the top of their games. Both goalies are big — Rinne is 6 feet 5, Smith is

6-4 — both employ the butterfly and like to play deep in their crease, both are

athletic, and both are at their best when employing the same style.

“Using their size and an economy of motion,” Burke said.

Smith is coming off the perhaps the best first round of any goalie in this

year’s postseason, punctuating it with the franchise’s first postseason road

shutout on Monday. But as he said, there has been little time to reflect.

“I’m sure when the season is over, I’ll look back on it and reminisce, but

right now I’ve got a job to do,” he said. “There’s still much more to

accomplish.” contributed to this story.