GLENDALE, Ariz. — Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith’s search to regain his 2011-12 form has reached a bit of a repetitive cycle this season.
Step 1: Put together a strong performance.
Step 2: Follow that performance with a handful of so-so or discouraging efforts.
Step 3: Let those efforts shake his psyche to the point where a lack of confidence becomes a serious issue. (See: Nov. 21-30, 2013)
Step 4: Make physical and mental adjustments under the direction of goaltending coach Sean Burke.
Step 5: Use the adjustments en route to another complete, 60-minute effort.
Step 6: Rinse and Repeat.
Of course, Smith’s campaign can’t merely be broken down into six steps, because the ebb-and-flow that has marked his performance in 2013-14 has never completely reached one end of the spectrum or the other.
However for a goalie that won 38 games, ecorded eight shutouts, had a GAA of 2.21 and single-handedly led his franchise to its first ever appearance in the Western Conference Finals just two seasons ago, finding a consistent flow to his game — either good or bad — has been elusive to say the least.
Smith’s latest on-ice tuneup with Burke might seem like any other. After all, the 31-year-old said three weeks ago that he had finally turned the corner, only to follow a 29-save shutout against the Vancouver Canucks with a five-game span in which he allowed 17 tallies.
But the veteran netminder’s rare mid-season hiatus this past week, took him back to a place he lost sight off in a marathon that has been filled with highs, lows and everything in between.
With back-up Thomas Greiss in net for the Coyotes’ home contests on Tuesday and Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings and Buffaloes Sabres respectively, Smith focused his attention on refining aspects of his game that had apparently fallen through the cracks.
“It was frustrating not playing, but Greiss deserved to play,” Smith said. “He’s played well for us this year. He deserves the opportunity to play. He goes out and gets a shutout. Then he plays solid the next game, and we lose on kind of a weird goal. Saying that, I got a lot in with Sean [Burke] in those three or fours days. Work that you don’t get in when you’re playing, because you’re trying to save your energy. When you’re playing a lot, you don’t want to expend that energy in practice.
“It was nice to be able to know I wasn’t going to be playing in those two games, so I could kind of bag myself on the ice and get back to basics.”
And during those four days of extensive work, the Sochi-bound goalie realized that in order to get his game back to the level it was two seasons ago, he needed to simplify his motions in and around the pipes.
“Less is more sometimes,” said Smith. “Even with puck-handling and movements in your net, just back to basics. Like I said, it’s about being in the right position to make more saves look easier than they are. I think when you do that it makes the team feel more confident in you. They play a more confident game, too. It starts with me and it carries over to the rest of game.”
Smith certainly put his recent classwork to good use Saturday night, stopping 23 of 24 shots in a 3-1 win over Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. And although Pittsburgh — behind the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Brian Gibbons, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen — had its fare share of offensive opportunities, Smith was up to the task each and every time.
Whether it was a pad stop on a wrap-around attempt, a glove save on a rebound tip-in or an important denial with Phoenix down a man, Smith’s ability to simplify the game proved encouraging in what was arguably his most important victory of the season to date.
“Obviously, it’s nice to get in and play well and get some confidence back in the team,” said Smith.
But now that Smith has restarted the cycle with another completion of the fifth step, both he and his head coach hope that the wheel doesn’t keep turning.
“There were two or three shots [early on] that bounced the wrong direction, and he had to make really good saves,” Dave Tippett said after the Coyotes’ 3-1 win. “I think that got him feeling good about his game again. He carried it right through, right to the end with the pad save on the wrap-up. That was an unbelievable save.
“That’s a positive thing for him. But it’s just like the rest of our group, we want to back that up with another good game.”