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Off the Ice: Keep the faith in struggling Mike Smith

To the casual hockey fan, the Phoenix Coyotes season has not gotten off to a good start.

Hell, to a seasoned hockey fan, the Coyotes season has not gotten off to a good start.

Generally known for a defense-first approach, the ‘Yotes have given up 10 goals in two games, enough for a 5.00 goals against average (I’m good at math). All of these have been against Mike Smith, whose eight shutouts and 2.21 GAA led the team to the Western Conference Finals last season.

The onus was on Smith at the beginning of the 2013 season to prove last year wasn’t a fluke, but it’s beginning to look like it was.

During the Coyotes 6-4 loss to the Blackhawks on Sunday night, a friend — who is admittedly a novice hockey fan — texted me that Smith looked terrible. He claimed Smith simply isn’t getting the job done. He’s right.

But then he claimed that Smith needed to be pulled and backup Jason LaBarbera sent in to stop an excellent Hawks offense. On that point, he’s wrong.

Goaltending in the NHL is a fickle business. What can seem like a brick wall one day can seem like a sieve the next. Such is the case with Smith. Last season, he stopped everything that came his way. This season, not so much.

But if Smith is going to return to his elite form, the Coyotes can’t quit on him now. The Canadian bore the brunt of the poor start after the Blackhawks game, saying the Coyotes’ losses stem from his play.

“We need to clean up our game in some areas and that starts with me and that’s not getting done.”

Smith went on to say that his biggest issue is stopping the puck, but for anyone, the play of the team as a whole is becoming an problem. Sloppy play has resulted in scoring chances or goals, often leaving Smith hung out to dry.

Head coach Dave Tippet recognized that poor decisions are creating an issue for his team, especially Smith.

“Smitty, just like the rest of our group, has to be a little better, but if we play like that we’ve got no chance,” he said after the loss to Chicago.

But how do you get better? How do you let a goaltender bleed goals and let him remain in the net? That’s easy: faith.

To pull Smitty now is to tell him he’s not good enough, something that has happened to him before during his time in Tampa Bay, which was marred by injury and prolonged stints in the AHL. Then Tippett found him, acquired him in free agency and transformed him from a bubble NHL player into one who was seriously considered in Vezina talks.

A good goaltender, especially a leader like Smith, has to feel in control of his game. He has to know where his body is, where the puck is, where his teammates are and where the opposition are waiting for a rebound, all at the same time. During the lockout, Smith played with the same set of guys — at a slower pace — and lost that vision. Improvement for an elite goaltender comes with in-game experience. To gain that game time, the Coyotes need to keep their faith in their primary netminder.

“I’ve got to bail my teammates out,” Smith said.

But who is going to loan Smith a helping hand? Dave Tippett, by letting Smith have a chance to save himself, if not the puck.