The Arizona Coyotes season goes as Mike Smith goes.
Or more accurately, when Smith doesn’t go, the Coyotes don’t stand a chance.
As October draws to a close, Smith is still searching for his game.
Three poor performances to start the season gave way to a pair of quality outings last Thursday and Saturday. But any progress made over those two games was wiped away on Tuesday after Smith allowed six goals and was pulled with more than 10 minutes to play in a 7-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was the third time in six starts Smith allowed six goals.
Smith ranks dead last among goalies that have started more than two games this season in goals against average (4.29) and second to last in save percentage (.858). The Coyotes have lost four of Smith’s six starts and fans are beginning to wonder if the 32-year-old starting goaltender has lost his touch.
Fortunately for Smith, his coach is not one of them.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Wednesday that he will give Smith the nod Thursday against the Florida Panthers. Smith’s best game of the season came against the Panthers on Saturday at Gila River Arena — a 2-1 overtime victory in which he stopped 23-of-24 shots en route to his second victory of the season.
One of the reasons Tippett is confident throwing his starter right back in is his belief that there is more to Smith’s struggles than just his play in the crease.
“We need to play better in front of him,” Tippett said. “He showed that his game was in good shape (before the road trip), we have to clean up some of the stuff in front of him.”
The Coyotes have struggled defensively all season — putting their goaltender in unenviable situations.
“We’re missing assignments — just plain and simple giving opportunities (to the opposition) we shouldn’t be giving and that’s putting a lot of pressure on the goaltender,” Tippett said.
Poor defense does not completely absolve Smith of his own poor play.
“We need him to be a little better, but for our group, we have to play better in front of him to give him the best chance to be a good player.”
Smith has proven in the past that he can play like an elite goaltender in the Coyotes system. He did so in 2011-12 as he almost single-handedly dragged the Coyotes to a Western Conference Final appearance. Since then, he has just been average, but this season’s poor start is uncharacteristic.
If Smith cannot turn his game around, Arizona is likely looking at a third consecutive playoffless season and a goalie with four more years left on his six-year, $34 million deal.