GLENDALE, Ariz. — In his last three games, Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith has faced 136 shots and not one of them has made it into the net.
The trio of shutouts was capped by his most spectacular performance yet. Smith’s 54 saves in Tuesday night’s 2-0 victory over Columbus are the most in a regular-season shutout victory in NHL history. Even more impressively, he did it despite seven Blue Jackets power plays.
“It wasn’t easy, obviously,” Smith said, “but pucks just seemed to be hitting me.”
As general manager Don Maloney put it, Smith “is willing us into the playoffs.” A team that opened the season with goalie as a perceived weakness has relied heavily on Smith all season, and his best efforts have come when the Coyotes needed them most as they work to survive an incredibly tight scramble for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
The streak began last Thursday against San Jose as Phoenix began a crucial three-game home stand. That 2-0 victory was followed Saturday by a 4-0 triumph over Anaheim, then the 2-0 triumph over Columbus. Overall, Smith has gone 219 minutes and 59 seconds without allowing a goal.
“That,” Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards said, “is what you would call ‘a guy being in his zone.'”
The most eye-popping saves came in the third period against Columbus. In one instance, the Blue Jackets’ James Wisniewski had an open look at the net, but Smith flung his left arm into the air and caught the puck on the fly as he sprawled in the other direction.
“It’s been as fun to watch as anything,” team captain Shane Doan said after the team practiced on Wednesday. “Not just the way he’s playing but the flair he likes to play with. When you have the best player on the team, sometimes you find yourself watching him. He’s been incredible.”
Coach Dave Tippett gave Smith the day off Wednesday, resting him for the final two games of the regular season — at St. Louis on Friday and at Minnesota on Saturday. Phoenix is tied with Los Angeles with 93 points, but the Kings are the Pacific Division leaders because they own the tiebreaker over the Coyotes. That leaves Phoenix in seventh. A loss by Dallas or either a victory or overtime loss by the Coyotes clinches a playoff berth, and the fight for the division title could go down to the final game.
Smith came to a team sorely in need of a No. 1 goalie.
The Coyotes are under strict budget restraints in the third season under NHL ownership. When goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract with Phoenix expired after last season, there was no way Phoenix could afford to re-sign him. The front office’s attention had turned to Smith before the season was over.
Tippett and Smith were together in Dallas, and the coach said he was certain the young goalie would be a starter somewhere. Eventually, Smith was shipped to Tampa, where he languished for four seasons, never becoming the No. 1 player at his position.
Phoenix seemed a perfect opportunity, and he signed a two-year contract. With the Coyotes, he has been tutored by goaltending coach Sean Burke, whose career as a player mirrored that of Smith.
“First of all,” Burke said, “I knew we were getting an athlete who was hungry, who was going to want to prove a lot to a lot of people and establish himself.”
Burke downplays his influence.
“I really have to say most issues have been really easy with him because he’s a great athlete, he works extremely hard,” Burke said. “Technically, we work on little things like everybody does, but there’s been no secret formula to it. It’s just been the consistent work ethic and trying to stay even-keeled, and most of that he’s done on his own.”
Burke said there is no more athletic goalie in the league than the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Smith.
“When I say that, I don’t think there’s one who has as many attributes as he does,” Burke said. “There’s lots of guys — I think of the way Tim Thomas (of Boston) plays and certain guys play very athletic, but I don’t know if there’s a better athletic package where you’ve got a guy with size and strength and he’s a great athlete. He can handle the puck and he competes hard. You throw in the confidence and the mental level with all that, that makes a pretty effective athlete.”
The night the shutout streak began, Smith was named the team’s MVP. No one would argue.
“He hasn’t surprised me,” Tippett said. “I’ve always been a fan of Schmitty. I thought he was going to be an excellent goaltender in this league from when I had him as a young guy in Dallas. In that sense, it doesn’t surprise me. What is very gratifying is how he’s embraced the role. He’s embraced the position and his will to win is unbelievable right now.”
Leave it to Doan to describe Smith best.
“He’s super-competitive, intense and athletic, I mean incredibly athletic,” the Coyotes captain said, “and a lot of fun. I really enjoy him, and he’s a guy that everyone in the room cheers for. You want good things to happen to him.”