Smith’s franchise-record 58 stops can’t save Coyotes

Dec 3, 2016, 11:06 PM | Updated: Dec 4, 2016, 9:38 am
As Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate a goal by center Alexander Wennberg, Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike...

As Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate a goal by center Alexander Wennberg, Arizona Coyotes goalie Mike Smith sprays water on his head during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. The Blue Jackets defeated the Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mike Smith had a hard time expressing his feelings when reporters first reached him at his locker. He had just stopped a franchise-record 58 shots, giving the Coyotes a chance to steal a game from the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets, yet there he was discussing a 3-2 shootout loss on Saturday at Gila River Arena.

“Frustrating would be a good word but its even worse than that right now,” said Smith, who faced 40 or more shots for the third time in his last four games. “At some point you’d like to see your team move forward and take steps in the right direction to start having your chance to win hockey games. It seems like once we take one step forward we’re taking a couple back. It’s tough to play like that in this league and expect to come out and win hockey games.”

The Coyotes aren’t winning much. Saturday’s loss dropped Arizona to 8-11-4, one point ahead of Colorado for the NHL basement. The Coyotes are a dreadful possession team — the league’s worst statistically — and that fact is driven by a host of problems including the inability of their defensemen to generate clean, quick zone exits, the inability of their forwards to avoid careless turnovers or sustain a forecheck, and the inability of their centers to make much of an impact on games.

“There’s not enough guys competing hard enough to get things stopped defensively and we’re just not doing enough with the puck to allow us to sustain anything,” coach Dave Tippett said. “When you play the whole game in your own end you’re going to get a lot of shots.”

Tippett is doing all he can on his end to give this team a chance to succeed. Of Arizona’s 23 games this season, 17 have been one-goal affairs, but youth and roster holes are still major problems — ones not even Smith can overcome.

“We started poor right from the first shift,” Tippett said.

Smith was spectacular on Saturday, even more so than the many other times that has been written this season. His 58 saves were the most by any NHL goalie in nearly two years and they included breakaway stops on stars Brandon Saad and Alex Wennberg.

“The last two weeks he’s been in a zone. That’s the only reason we’re even remotely close to getting points or getting any type of team success,” said captain Shane Doan, who marveled at the 60 shots Smith faced. “That’s like 1980s. It’s pretty impressive what he did.”

Columbus scored on its first shot of the game when Jordan Martinook lost the opening faceoff and then failed to pick up Boone Jenner all alone in the slot. Jenner’s wrist shot beat Smith to the glove side but it looked like he might make goals from Radim Vrbata and Doan stand up when the Coyotes killed off a late 5-on-3 Blue Jackets power play to improve to 5-for-5 on the penalty kill against the league’s top power play.

“That’s one of the bright spots,” Tippett said, “but you’ve got to remember Mike’s cleaning up a lot of messes there, too.”

Smith couldn’t clean up another blown coverage — this one by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tobias Rieder — in the Coyotes zone when Saad found Wennberg all alone in front for the game-tying goal with 2:16 left in regulation.

Smith stood on his head again in overtime, stopping 10 shots in overtime including Wennberg’s breakaway, but Cam Atkinson and Sam Gagner scored in the shootout as the Blue Jackets improved to 8-1-2 in their last 11 games.

“That’s a lesson,” Doan said. “They gave us a lesson in how to play and we have to be way, way, way better than that. That could have easily been a really, really ugly game.”

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