Coyotes' Smith has Vezina-worthy credentials

April 9, 2012

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Sean Burke has a theory why Mike Smith isn't getting more Vezina Trophy attention as the NHL's best goalie.

"All those old GMs in the East are in bed by the time we come on TV," the Coyotes goalie coach said of an award that is voted on by general managers. "With (Ottawa GM) Bryan Murray, (Toronto's) Brian Burke, (Carolina's) Jim Rutherford and (New York's) Glen Sather, between them I guarantee they haven't seen us play three times all year."

If they had, they would have seen a guy who makes a strong case for the hardware. With all 82 regular-season games in the books, Smith finished third in the NHL with a .930 save percentage, widely considered the best league stat available to measure a goalie's success. The only goaltenders to finish ahead of Smith, St. Louis' Brian Elliott and Vancouver's Cory Schneider, are backups who played fewer than half their team's games.

The three guys most often mentioned in the Vezina argument are leading candidate Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick and Nashville's Pekka Rinne. All have had terrific seasons.

Quick and Lundqvist both finished ahead of Smith in goals against average, but that stat, more than save percentage, is considered a reflection of the team in front of a goalie, and both Lundqvist (28) and Quick (27) faced fewer shots per game than Smith (31).

Smith, who strung together an incredible final five games to lead the Coyotes to their first Pacific Division title and a first-round playoff matchup with Chicago, is tied for third in shutouts with eight behind Quick (10) and Elliott (nine); tied for eighth in games played (67); and he's fourth in wins behind Rinne (43), Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury (42) and Lundqvist (39).

"Lundqvist has had a great year, but Lundqvist plays in the East," said Burke, who has an inherent bias in the argument. "There's not nearly as much travel to wear you down.
"That's where I say the swing should go the other way. The numbers are there with Smitty anyway, but the fact that you put up those numbers when you play in the West with many more late nights, the travel schedule is ridiculous compared to the East and then you play in Arizona where we've had the same issues for a couple years -- to me that's an argument you can easily make: That he's been the best goaltender in the league this year."

Maybe Smith's late-season run will awaken the national press. He allowed just two goals over his final five games, stopping 190 of 192 shots (38.4 per game). Or maybe the glut of media attention focused on New York and Los Angeles will doom him.

Either way, Smith isn't losing sleep over it as he prepares for the Blackhawks, a series that starts on Thursday in Glendale. And he doesn't flinch when asked if the hot-playoff goalie cliché adds more pressure to his play.

"I haven't approached any game differently this season," he said. "I'm not going to change what I've done so far because it's the playoffs.

"The adrenaline, the intensity, everything is at a whole new level, but that's the exciting part of this season. I got a real taste of that last year in Tampa. You want to be playing in important games. It doesn't get more important than this."

Of the four goalies mentioned above in the Vezina argument, Smith and Quick may be the most vital to their teams' success, given the dearth of offensive support they got. Phoenix finished 18th in the NHL in goals for with 210; L.A. finished 29th with 188.

L.A.'s anemic offense is harder to explain, given the Kings' personnel and offseason moves, but Phoenix has been in this boat before. The past two seasons, it was Ilya Bryzgalov who the Coyotes hoped would carry them to the franchise's first playoff series win by getting hot in the playoffs. Instead, they got the opposite as Bryzgalov flopped in the postseason.

Can Smith do what Bryzgalov could not? Burke thinks so.

"Mike's been consistently good all year. That's what you need in the playoffs – consistency. And yes, you need your goalie to steal a game or two," he said. "But you're not going to get a team winning win round after round just with one goaltender playing well. That's just not going to happen."

Coach Dave Tippett drove that very same message home when asked about the hot-goalie theory on Monday.

"Smitty has played very well for us all season. This last little stretch of play in the final (part) of the regular season has been excellent, and we expect that to continue, but we have to play well in front of him," he said. "You look at a team like Chicago, they're top-end players are real top end. If you give them easy chances, they're going to find a way to be successful."

As Smith noted, he got a taste of what's ahead last season when he played in three games for Tampa against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals, allowing two goals on 48 shots for a .958 save percentage.

That sip left him wanting more.

"It's a bigger stage," he said. "When you're that close to being in the Stanley Cup Finals, it's indescribable. It's a dream.

"You want to be a part of this time of year."