TORONTO – Mike Smith isn’t a household name in the NHL, but the league is starting to take notice of the Phoenix Coyotes goaltender.
Smith, in his first season with the Coyotes after stops in Dallas and Tampa Bay, led Phoenix to its fifth consecutive road win with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
The Coyotes netminder made 35 saves in regulation and overtime, then denied Leafs sniper Phil Kessel—who’s leading the NHL in goals and points—and Nikolai Kulemin in the shootout.
“Smith has come in here and really embraced the No. 1 goaltending role,” said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, whose team is 9-4-3 and within sight of top spot in the Western Conference standings. “He’s earned the confidence of our team and the players have really taken a liking to him.
“His play has been as good as anybody’s in the league up to this point in the season.”
The numbers certainly back up Tippett’s bold statement, as Smith is tied for fourth in the league in wins (eight) and tied for seventh in save percentage (.933) with the likes of the New York Rangers’ starter Henrik Lundqvist and Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne.
“Obviously, I’m feeling pretty decent right now,” said Smith, 29. “But I’m not looking at what I’ve done, I’m looking at the next game. If I keep playing like I am, things are going to work out pretty good.
“The next step is being consistent. I have all the right tools to be very good. It’s just doing it every day. That’s what separates you from being a great goalie in this league to just an average goalie. It’s a huge focus of mine to keep that consistency throughout the whole season.”
Smith signed a US$4-million, two-year deal with Phoenix in the summer after things didn’t work out in Tampa. He began the 2010-11 season as the Lightning’s No. 1 goalie, but ended up being waived and spending time in the minors after being replaced by Dwayne Roloson midway through the season.
But Smith is making the most of his chance with the Coyotes, who play a strict defensive style under Tippett.
“He’s a stand-up guy and wants to be a big part of our team,” said Phoenix captain Shane Doan. “He wants to prove himself to everybody and wants to be there for everybody.
“He’s incredibly athletic. Besides the fact he’s a good guy, he’s a really good goalie. And his confidence is good, he’s reliable and we know he’s going to make those big saves that will give us a chance to win.”
That’s been the recipe for success for Tippett’s Coyotes, who have surrendered just 16 goals in their past eight games and gone 6-1-1 in the process.
“That’s who we are,” said the coach. “We’re not going to blow out too many teams, but we’ll be competitive in a lot of games.”
That’s music to Smith’s ears, who feels he’s ready to take the next step in is career.
“Everyone knows (a big part of) goaltending is mental,” he said. “I know I have the physical ability to be a great goalie in this league, but I’ve struggled with the mental aspect of it throughout my career. I’ve had stretches in my career where I’ve played really well and I’ve had stretches where I haven’t.”