GLENDALE, Ariz. – Mike Smith’s frizzy curls jut out from underneath his backward-turned cap in clownish proportions. His beard, which he got a pre-playoff head start on, is spotty up top and trails down his neck like moss.
And those suits he wears, wow: red, plaid, you name it, usually accentuating his long, lean frame.
See him enter or leave a hockey arena and there’s no doubt that, yes, he is the goalie. The guys between the pipes are, after all, known for being quirky and Smith’s appearance would certainly put him in that category.
But that’s where it ends.
What makes Smith stand out is his ability to blend in.
No superstitions. No brooding behaviour. No eccentricities like talking to the goalposts or showering between periods. No ramblings about the universe, as his predecessor did earlier this season.
Smith is just a dude, one of the guys, a part of the team, not a separate entity from it—and his teammates love him for it.
“He’s pretty easygoing, which makes it nice,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “He fits right in with our whole group. He’s just as much a part of the team as anybody and that’s huge because goalies, that’s a different position and there’s different standard from everybody. It’s nice having a guy who fits right in.”
He’s pretty good at keeping pucks out of the net, too.
A big question mark headed into the season, Smith developed into one of the league’s top goaltenders in his first full season as a No. 1 goalie.
The 30-year-old has been a perfect fit for Phoenix’s defence-first style, a big anchor between the pipes who moves well and carries his teammates when they need him most.
Smith was third in the NHL with a save percentage of .930 and the two players ahead of him, St. Louis’ Brian Elliott and Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, played in less than half their team’s games. Smith tied for eighth in the league by playing 67 games.
He also finished tied for third with eight shutouts and was fourth in wins with 38 while setting career marks in nearly every category.
More than the numbers, Smith’s impact is defined by where he led the Coyotes: To a division title for the first time in the franchise’s 33-year NHL history.
Of all the goalies the franchise has had—Ilya Bryzgalov, Curtis Joseph, Nikolai Khabibulin—none was able to lead it to a division crown.
Smith brought it home practically by himself, closing out the season by allowing two goals during a five-game winning streak that included a scoreless stretch of 234:25 and 54-save win over Columbus, most in a regular-season shutout victory in NHL history.
There were some rough patches along the way, but knowing he was going to be the top goalie no matter what gave Smith the confidence to shake off the bad games and keep going back out there.
His approach helped lead the Coyotes into a first-round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks that starts Thursday night in Phoenix.
“The biggest thing has been getting the opportunity to play win or lose, not having to worry about when I’m going to get my next start, but worrying about the game I’m playing in,” Smith said.
And to think, Smith was a big reason the Coyotes weren’t expected to do much this season.
Despite being in a constant state of flux with no owner, Phoenix reached the playoffs each of the past two seasons behind Bryzgalov, a quirky goalie with ocelot-like reflexes. When the team and the Russian goaltender couldn’t come to terms on a new contract, the Coyotes traded his rights to Philadelphia, leaving a huge hole in the crease.
Instead of seeking out a big name, Phoenix turned to Smith, a goalie who, if he wasn’t already one, was creeping up on becoming a journeyman.
Smith got his start in Dallas, where he was a backup under current Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, and was traded to Tampa Bay during the 2007-08 season.
Tippett fully expected Smith to become a No. 1 goalie with the Lightning, but it never happened; he missed the final 32 games in 2008-09 with an injury and played 22 games last season, which included a demotion to the minors.
So when Phoenix turned to Smith to replace Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two seasons ago, it was met with head scratching, at least outside the organization.
Within it, there was a belief that Smith had the skills and mental makeup to become a No. 1 goalie, though even they weren’t sure if he’d live up to that potential.
Smith turned out to be what the Coyotes expected and more, the key cog in their history-making season.
“You look at his numbers and his accomplishments this year, he’s right there with the elite goaltenders in the league,” Tippett said. “At the start of the year, we hoped for this. Did we know it was coming? No. That’s been a lot of work by Mike that he’s really gotten himself to an elite status.”
The next step is for Smith to do something Bryzgalov and many of his predecessors couldn’t: Help the Coyotes win a playoff series.
Since moving to the desert in 1996, Phoenix has lost in the first round of the playoffs seven times, including to Detroit the previous two seasons. The franchise has just two series wins in its history with the last coming in 1987, when the team was still in Winnipeg and beat Calgary in the Smythe Division semifinals.
The team standing in his way certainly believes Smith can do it.
“Smith is a great goalie,” Blackhawks centre Dave Bolland said. “The way he plays, he’s a big guy, plays the puck well. I think he’s always making an extra save or an extra little move. We know he’s going to be on his game.”
Whatever happens, don’t expect Smith to change.
The leisure suits and sprouting-in-every-direction hair aside, Smith is just an average, everyday Joe.
OK, so maybe he’s uber competitive, will knock you down in a game of Nerf soccer for a chance to win. Still, he’s far more ordinary than many of his goal-keeping brethren across the NHL, abnormal for his normalness.
“I don’t know if I’m normal; I just approach it differently than other people. My wife probably wouldn’t say I’m normal,” Smith said. “But I was raised by my parents very well to work hard at everything I do. I don’t really have any superstitions, I just enjoy coming to the rink and enjoy what I do.”
Even if it does set him apart from everyone else.