BUFFALO – In a little more than 60 minutes, the 30th-place Buffalo Sabres and 29th-place Arizona Coyotes had a total of 124 shot attempts. That was three more than the Islanders and the Kings, 20 more than Carolina and Pittsburgh and 33 more than Nashville and the high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning.
All in all, a rather entertaining, if not surreal night in the latest installment of the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes™. The Sabres did a pretty good job of keeping the crowd out of it by staying in the game, but the cheers could not be contained when the Coyotes scored on the power play just 56 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 victory, which increased the Coyotes cushion over Buffalo to six points. The Sabres were quietly incensed at the reaction, but the people who speak with their feet and their wallets are entitled to react however they like. If the Sabres get either McDavid or Jack Eichel and he helps lead them to a Stanley Cup in five years, nobody is going to remember a night in March when the fans booed a Sabres loss.
“It sounded worse than it was,” said Coyotes goalie Mike Smith. “It was kind of an eerie feeling, to be honest. I’ve never heard the home team cheering when the opposing team scores as loud as it did tonight.”
There was not one indication, not a single one, that either team was going to quietly into the night and take the lost two points. And good on them for doing that. And one player for the Coyotes who clearly hasn’t gotten the tanking memo is Smith, who has spent the better part of a season-and-a-half struggling in the Coyotes crease. The irony of his situation is that as the losses have mounted through March, Smith has been spectacular. He stopped 32 of 35 against the Sabres to raise his save percentage through the month of March to .934. But the win against the Sabres was just his third of the month. In fact, prior to beating the Detroit Red Wings in overtime Monday night, Smith had a record of just 1-7-0 for the month, but had a save percentage of .941.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett has noticed that Smith has picked up his play. He acknowledged Smith struggled for the first 40 or 50 games of the season, but is now looking like the Smith who led the Coyotes to the Western Conference final in 2012 and was rewarded with a six-year extension for more than $34 million two summers ago.
“I think I played some good games and the team didn’t get rewarded for it,” Smith said. “And I played some games where it didn’t look like I belonged in the league. It’s been a frustrating year, all in all.”
With four more years remaining on his deal with the Coyotes, Smith is clearly going to have to be part of the solution going forward, whether the Coyotes end up with a player such as McDavid (far more unlikely after the win over Buffalo) or Eichel (still possible, but not a guarantee). And the Coyotes, when it comes to on-ice fortunes, have reason to be excited. They have four first-round picks and three-second rounders in the next three years, have a stud defenseman around whom to build in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and some blue-chip prospects coming up.
Those young players are going to need some veteran leadership to show them the way. The last thing the Coyotes want is to go years being a young, rudderless team that learns how to lose, a blueprint the Edmonton Oilers have established. Team captain Shane Doan might be a part of that, but he’s had a very, very rough season. (The Buffalo game would not have gone to overtime had Doan, who was doing a really good job killing a penalty, not gone up the middle of the ice with a soft clear that landed right on the stick of Brian Gionta.) Smith, though, could go a long way toward helping these young players develop by being the goaltender he was two years ago. A goaltender who can steal games and give his team confidence can help young players mature and play their game without worrying about every mistake they make ending up in the back of their net.
“There’s blame on everyone here for where we are,” Smith said. “But I signed here because I not only love the city of…or the state of Arizona, but I really believe that we can turn this around and become a contender again.”
When Smith talked about where he liked playing, he clearly had to pause, unsure of whether to say Phoenix or Glendale or Arizona. Who knows? He might be playing in Las Vegas in a couple of years. But it will almost certainly be for a team that is much better than the one he’s playing for now, and one that will be able to help him deliver a few more victories.