When Phoenix Coyotes' GM Don Maloney inked goaltender Mike Smith to a two-year, $4 million contract, it was one of the more brushed-aside free agent acquisitions of the summer. The signing basically flew under the radar in a time when big-name unrestricted free agents were dominating the headlines as they changed residences.
The 30-year-old former top prospect turned journeyman had just completed his third full season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in rather uneventful fashion. The Lightning seemed happy with their choice of Dwayne Roloson as their No. 1 netminder, as the 41-year-old had just taken Tampa to the Eastern Conference Finals. Smith was seen by the Bolts as expendable, and the UFA was permitted to test the free agent waters.
It remained to be seen if Phoenix's decision to go with Smith as their main man was a wise one or if it was just another step towards mediocrity for the embattled franchise.
By virtue of Dave Tippett's defense-first system, Smith was a perfect fit in filling the vacancy left by the departure of UFA goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. The Russian had posted 130 regular season victories during his four seasons in the desert, including 78 over the last two years.
Even though Phoenix had just come off its two most successful seasons in franchise-history, the team had not managed to escape the first round in either of the postseasons, with both early exits coming at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings.
Under the tutelage of goaltending coach and former-Coyote Sean Burke, Smith had thrived from day one in the team's starting position. The backstop posted a career-high 15th win very early in the season -- Dec. 20 in a 2-1 victory in South Florida over the Panthers -- in a contest he would leave in the third period with a lower body injury. When he returned, both he and Phoenix struggled to regain their form. Smith posted a 3-5-4 mark through the end of January, but that's when everything seemed to fall into place.
Smith was a perfect 11-0-0 with a 1.42 goals-against average and .952 save percentage during the month of February, deservedly earning the NHL's First Star of the Month honors.
He closed out the stretch run of the regular season with five consecutive wins -- three straight via the shutout route -- to lead the Coyotes to the Pacific Division title, thereby locking up the Western Conference's third seed in the process. Smith closed out the year with some incredible statistics -- a 38-18-10 record, with a 2.21 GAA, .930 save percentage and eight shutouts.
While the short-term goal of signing Smith was accomplished with the continuation of the 'Yotes' good fortune experienced in recent regular seasons, it was hoped he could also become the answer to the question of what it would take to help the club advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996.
Smith was spectacular in outplaying Chicago goalie Corey Crawford in Phoenix's 3-2 overtime triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night, making 43 saves. The netminder overcame giving up an early goal to Jonathan Toews, the Chicago captain who played his first game since sustaining a mid-February concussion, and was just 14 seconds away from a regulation victory before 'Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook tied the game to force overtime.
The Blackhawks carried the momentum of the tying marker into the extra frame and registered the first five shots of overtime, but Smith would not yield. Martin Hanzal tallied for Phoenix as they held home-ice advantage for the all-important first game of what could be a long series.
Sure, it is only one game, but it appears that Smith could very well provide the answer to the Coyotes' postseason questions.
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