Smith stepping up at right time for Coyotes

April 4, 2012

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mike Smith didn't get all the media attention after he shut out San Jose last week. Radim Vrbata's harrowing tale of an allergic reaction to penicillin was too dramatic to skip.

Smith didn't get the pub on Saturday, either, when he stopped all 44 Anaheim shots to post his second straight shutout. Ray Whitney's 1,000th career point was a no-brainer storyline that night.

We're certain those snubs were not Smith's motivation when he took the ice Tuesday night against the Coyote-killing Columbus Blue Jackets. But after he stopped all 54 shots — punctuated by an old-fashioned pad-stack glove save that will make every NHL highlight package — we decided it was time to give the goalie his glory.

"It sure wasn't easy, but pucks just seemed to be hitting me," Smith said. "It was one of those nights."

With his third straight white-washing — a 2-0 decision over the Jackets at Arena — Smith ran his shutout streak to 219 minutes, 59 seconds. That's the second-longest streak in franchise history behind Brian Boucher's NHL modern-era record of 332:01, set in 2003-04.

Smith's eight shutouts this season also tie the franchise record set by Nikolai Khabibulin (1998-99) and Ilya Bryzgalov (2009-10). The 54 saves set an NHL regular-season record for saves in a shutout.

"It's been unbelievable," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Time after time, he's made unbelievable saves for us. It's been an incredible run."

It couldn't have come at a better time. Not only do the Coyotes need every point they can gather to make the playoffs and possibly win the Pacific Division (they're tied with Los Angeles with two games to play), but, truth be told, Phoenix has not played well of late.

"That's three games in a row," Tippett said with his trademark scowl. "We're going to have to figure some things out like lineup changes. That's just not good enough."

Fortunately, Smith was. Columbus had defeated the Coyotes in the team's three prior meetings, and the Jackets looked like they might complete the sweep with 17 first-period shots. But Smith was equal to the task, and the Coyotes finally broke through with a pair of goals in the second period from Boyd Gordon — his first since Feb. 11 — and Gilbert Brulé.

Gordon was one of few Coyotes who contributed to the cause, blocking back-to-back shots on a second-period penalty kill – one with his leg, the other with his groin — that left him crawling on the ice.

"That's the guy who was playing the game to win – doing whatever it takes to win," Tippett said. "We could have a few more of those guys in our lineup."

Gordon returned to the ice in the third period and said he was OK after the game. But Smith was the story Tuesday.

He robbed forward R.J. Umberger on a breakaway. He stoned defenseman Nikita Nikitin on a blast from the circles that appeared to sting him. He blocked one shot with his head yet still managed to corral the rebound. He stopped 18 Columbus power-play shots because the Coyotes took a whopping seven penalties.

And he wowed the crowd with that stack, stealing a goal from defenseman James Wisniewski by resorting to that move only after he got bumped and was caught out of position.

"I did throw a jammer out for ya," Smith said, smiling. "It wasn't a plan. It was kind of a desperation move.

"I haven't thrown too many of those. Burkie (goalie coach Sean Burke) kind of frowns on those, but whatever I have to do to stop the puck, I'll do it."

There still are two games left in the regular season, so it's too early to list Smith's heroics with past playoff game-changers like Jaroslav Halak. But Smith currently boasts career highs in wins (36), save percentage (.929) and shutouts. It sure feels like one of those career-altering years — the kind that can carry a team to places it's never seen before.

"He's just giving us confidence back there," Brulé said. "Obviously, we don't want to give up (54) shots, ever, but we know he's going to make the saves. When we're getting in tight games, he's coming up huge."