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Arizona Coyotes

Updated Mar 7, 2012 - 2:41 pm

Off the Ice: Give Mike Smith a break -- literally

Have you ever heard the phrase "beating a dead horse" when a conversation gets so stagnant there is no point in carrying it on anymore?

The same thing happens when you try to ride that dead horse into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith has been, arguably, one of the best goalies in the entire league this season. His stats are not stellar (12th in goals against average, tied for seventh in save percentage, tied for fifth in wins and tied for eighth in shutouts), but he is, beyond a doubt, one of the main reasons the Coyotes are in playoff contention.

He was the NHL's First Star of the Month for February. He won 11 straight games, including two shutouts, and he posted a .952 save percentage. That's insane.

No one expected this out of a guy who spent half of last season in the NHL, especially with the dismal goaltending situation in Tampa Bay. Coyotes goaltender coach Sean Burke has turned Smith back into the elite player he once was and the team is relying heavily on him to carry them into the postseason.

But every team's workhorse eventually needs a day off. Smith, a competitor until the end, would never ask to be sat. He'll play until he can't stand. But head coach Dave Tippett needs to rest him. Smith is likely feeling a little worn down and he's earned a night off, but won't take one unless he's forced to.

In an interview with phoenixcoyotes.com, Smith said the solution to the team's current four-game losing streak begins with him.

"There's no need to panic," goalie Mike Smith told reporters after an optional practice at Jobing.com Arena on Wednesday. "There's still some hockey games left. We just can't afford to let any more games slip away. It starts with me - it starts with the goaltending - and the rest of the guys will follow."

As we all remember, the Coyotes rode on the back of the now-infamous Ilya Bryzgalov for three seasons. During that time, Bryz grabbed numerous franchise records and was "humungous big" in an asinine number of starts.

Bryz averaged slightly more than 67 games per season, meaning he only had about 15 games off. Everyone criticized him for being a bad playoff goaltender, but did you ever stop to consider that maybe he was just worn out? Carrying a team is a lot of work -- especially in goal -- and it's possible the Coyotes simply rode that horse until he died every year.

Unfortunately, the team is doing the same thing with Smitty. With 15 games left this season, he already has 54 games under his belt and, most likely, will be used a lot as every point now matters with only Western Conference teams left on the schedule. Guys like Smith, who take every loss to heart and celebrate every win like the Cup final, need breaks, both mentally and physically.

Despite being over-used, Smith still looks decent in net, but he's making errors. Pittsburgh was targeting his low blocker side like their lives depended on it and it's no surprise. It's a tough save for goaltenders to make and wears them out. Why not play the fatigue angle?

Smith has also given up some questionable goals during poor first periods as time has gone on. Don't get me wrong, the team in front of him doesn't look too solid either, but that's when they need Smith to be even bigger. With a tired guy between the pipes, the Coyotes don't look like the team they were in February.

The time available to rest Smith is growing smaller by the minute, but there are opportunities. Any out-of-division games would be permissible for Jason LaBarbera to start, but especially back-to-back games -- the Coyotes still have three such scenarios against the Canucks/Flames, the Sharks/Blues and Blues/Wild.

With a decent spot in the conference standings, the Coyotes look to be playoff-bound. No matter who they meet, Smith will be under enormous pressure to carry a franchise past the first round for the first time ever. If the Coyotes want to give themselves the best chance to advance, they'll rest their main netminder now, rather than live to regret it when the team goes crashing out of the playoffs again.

"Off the Ice" is a portion of ArizonaSports.com where Carter Nacke will be covering and discussing the Phoenix Coyotes throughout the season. Contact him at cnacke@arizonasports.com, tweet him at @carternacke or follow the blog's twitter feed at @OfftheIce620. Thanks for reading.

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