Questionable goaltending seems to be a common issue with some of the top teams in the Pacific Division with the post-season on the horizon.
Martin Jones has done just enough to keep San Jose near the top of the standings, but his .898 save percentage is 25th out of the 27 goalies with 40 or more starts. Marc-Andre Fleury, currently out with a lower-body injury, is leading the league in shutouts and tied for top spot in wins, but the Vegas Golden Knights goaltender has been streaky. And though Calgary is sitting atop the Western Conference, the Flames haven’t received much credit for what will end up being their best season in 15 years. Much of that can be tied to the fact its goaltending has been shaky at various points this year, especially when it comes to veteran Mike Smith.
Since January, Smith has been, statistically, the better goalie on Calgary with a .905 SP, but he’s been far below average throughout the entire season. Entering the homestretch of the season, Smith has a 2.88 goals-against average and an .896 SP, and he’s not heating up the right time, either, losing all three of his starts in March.
But because of that, it’s easy to forget that Smith has proven himself to be a performer on the big stage in the past.
In 2011-12, Smith almost singlehandedly led the Phoenix Coyotes to their first and only Western Conference final, and it would have been hard to keep him out of the Conn Smythe discussion had the Coyotes managed to get past the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings. Only Jonathan Quick had a better SP (.946) than Smith during those playoffs (.944), and L.A. was undoubtedly the much better team. That run looked like a sign of great things to come for Smith, but he has yet to reach the playoffs in the seven years since. In fact, that was just the second time in his 13-year career Smith has made the playoffs. (Fittingly, if the playoffs were to begin today, Smith’s return to the post-season would be against the Coyotes, who would have earned their way to the dance on the strength of the goaltending they’ve received from Darcy Kuemper.)
Outside of the NHL, Smith has been a major factor on Canada’s World Championship team in the past, too. Smith was one of the brightest spots on a Canadian team that struggled at the 2013 tournament, only to finish as one of the team’s top three players two years later on a roster that included Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux and Nathan MacKinnon.
With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Giordano in the midst of career years, the Flames are serious Cup contenders, but they’ll fizzle out early unless Smith shows again the ability to play some of his best hockey when the games matter most. This could very well be one of his final chances at a championship, and with Calgary looking to become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993, the pressure is on.
The team brought Smith in two years ago to be their starter, and this is the best opportunity for him to live up to that role. Even if David Rittich is having a slightly better season – .910 SP, 2.65 GAA – the team needs to put some trust in Smith going forward. If anything, it would make sense to go back to the guy that was tabbed to lead the team at the start of the season and has experience in a long playoff run.
Smith will be on a short leash, but if he can regain his 2012 playoff form, the Flames will be a team to watch.