Philadelphia, PA – It's no secret the Phoenix Coyotes are desperately trying to find an owner to deliver them from financial ruin.
However, while the Coyotes still are awaiting the arrival of a fiduciary savior, they can always count on the man making saves in the crease.
For the first time since the franchise moved from Winnipeg to Arizona, the Coyotes know what it feels like to win a playoff series and goaltender Mike Smith is a big reason for that positive development.
Smith is coming off a fantastic first-round performance against a Chicago Blackhawks team that threw everything it had at the net only to skate away in frustration most of the time. In all, Chicago sent 229 pucks Smith's way over the course of six games and the Phoenix backstop turned aside 95 percent of them.
Smith's heroics, which included a 39-save shutout in Monday's series-clinching victory in Chicago, were absolutely essential for a team like Phoenix. The Coyotes play a tight defensive game under head coach Dave Tippett and the team was forced to play without the puck for much of its matchup against a high-powered offense like Chicago's.
By the time this season's Pacific Division champions had salted away their 4-0 triumph in Game 6, the Blackhawks and their star forwards were shaking their collective heads in disbelief.
"He stops everything he sees, and a few he doesn't see," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, who led Chicago with 33 goals during the regular season, but scored only once on 24 shots against Smith in the playoffs.
Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle aptly described his team's style of play against the Blackhawks as "Rope-a-Dope," and while Phoenix bobbed and weaved, Smith made sure that Chicago never landed a knockout blow.
The Blackhawks and Coyotes went to overtime in the first five games of the series, and although Smith surrendered tying goals late in regulation a few times over that stretch, the 30-year-old netminder always seemed able to bounce back.
At this point, Smith's resiliency should come as no surprise. Since being selected with a fifth-round pick by Dallas in 2001, Smith has had anything but a clear path to success. After breaking through to the NHL with the Stars, Smith was traded to Tampa Bay during the 2007-08 and was given numerous chances to be that franchise's No. 1 goaltender.
Smith ultimately ended his tenure with the Lightning by signing a two-year, $2 million contract with the Coyotes last summer. Although the signing barely registered as a story on July 1, as the 2011-12 season wore on it became obvious both Smith and Phoenix had made a wise choice in each other.
Few people are happier about Smith's dominant performance than longtime Coyotes captain Shane Doan, the only remaining player from Phoenix's days as the Winnipeg Jets. Doan had been 0-8 in playoff series as a member of this franchise before Smith led the way in the win over Chicago. That series victory was the first for the franchise since the 1987 Jets ousted Calgary in the opening round.
"It's a relief, because you just want to get a chance to do something in the playoffs and make some noise," Doan said. "Everyone always talks about if you get out of the first round, anything can happen. Now we've got to find a way to win that next round and that's really our next goal."
It will be interesting to see how Smith and the Coyotes fare in their upcoming Western Conference semifinal series with Nashville. Like Phoenix, the Predators are a defense-first team that relies heavily on its goaltender, Pekka Rinne.
In fact, with St. Louis and Los Angeles installed as the conference's other semifinalists, the Western Conference playoff picture now consists entirely of teams that rely primarily on defense and goaltending to be successful. If the Coyotes want to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Finals, then Smith may have to outplay some of the best goaltenders in the world.
Smith has been fighting for validation his whole career and is starting to find it in Phoenix of all places. While the franchise still may be a long way from becoming a successful business operation, Smith is doing his part to finally earn the Coyotes a measure of respect on the ice.