Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 4/9/12
GLENDALE, Ariz. Sean Burke has a theory why Mike Smith isnt getting more Vezina-Trophy attention as the NHLs best goalie. All those old GMs in the East are in bed by the time we come on TV, the Coyotes goalie coach said of an award that is voted on by general managers. With (Ottawa GM) Bryan Murray, (Torontos) Brian Burke, (Carolinas) Jim Rutherford and (New Yorks) Glen Sather, between them I guarantee they havent seen us play three times all year. If they had, they would have seen a guy who makes a strong case for the hardware. With all 82 regular-season games in the books, Smith finished third in the NHL with a .930 save percentage, widely considered the best league stat available to measure a goalies success. The only goaltenders to finish ahead of Smith, St. Louis Brian Elliott and Vancouvers Cory Schneider, are backups who played fewer than half their teams games. The three guys most often mentioned in the Vezina argument are leading candidate Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Jonathan Quick and Nashvilles Pekka Rinne. All have had terrific seasons. Quick and Lundqvist both finished ahead of Smith in goals against average, but that stat, more than save percentage, is considered a reflection of the team in front of a goalie, and both Lundqvist (28) and Quick (27) faced fewer shots per game than Smith (31). Smith, who strung together an incredible final five games to lead the Coyotes to their first Pacific Division title and a first-round playoff matchup with Chicago, is tied for third in shutouts with eight behind Quick (10) and Elliott (nine); tied for eighth in games played (67); and hes fourth in wins behind Rinne (43), Pittsburghs Marc-Andre Fleury (42) and Lundqvist (39). Lundqvist has had a great year, but Lundqvist plays in the East, said Burke, who has an inherent bias in the argument. Theres not nearly as much travel to wear you down. Thats where I say the swing should go the other way. The numbers are there with Smitty any way, but the fact that you put up those numbers when you play in the West with many more late nights, the travel schedule is ridiculous compared to the East and then you play in Arizona where weve had the same issues for a couple years -- to me thats an argument you can easily make: That hes been the best goaltender in the league this year. Maybe Smiths late-season run will awaken the national press. He allowed just two goals over his final five games, stopping 190 of 192 shots (38.4 per game). Or maybe the glut of media attention focused on New York and Los Angeles will doom him. Either way, Smith isnt losing sleep over it as he prepares for the Blackhawks, a series that starts on Thursday in Glendale. And he doesnt flinch when asked if the hot-playoff goalie clich adds more pressure to his play. I havent approached any game differently this season, he said. Im not going to change what Ive done so far because its the playoffs. The adrenaline, the intensity, everything is at a whole new level, but thats the exciting part of this season. I got a real taste of that last year in Tampa. You want to be playing in important games. It doesnt get more important than this. Of the four goalies mentioned above in the Vezina argument, Smith and Quick may be the most vital to their teams success, given the dearth of offensive support they got. Phoenix finished 17th in the NHL in goals for with 216; L.A. finished 29th with 194. L.A.s anemic offense is harder to explain, given the Kings personnel and offseason moves, but Phoenix has been in this boat before. The past two seasons, it was Ilya Bryzgalov who the Coyotes hoped would carry them to the franchises first playoff series win by getting hot in the playoffs. Instead, they got the opposite as Bryzgalov flopped in the postseason. Can Smith do what Bryzgalov could not? Burke thinks so. Mikes been consistently good all year. Thats what you need in the playoffs consistency. And yes, you need your goalie to steal a game or two, he said. But youre not going to get a team winning win round after round just with one goaltender playing well. Thats just not going to happen. Coach Dave Tippett drove that very same message home when asked about the hot-goalie theory on Monday. Smitty has played very well for us all season. This last little stretch of play in the final (part) of the regular season has been excellent, and we expect that to continue, but we have to play well in front of him, he said. You look at a team like Chicago, theyre top-end players are real top end. If you give them easy chances, theyre going to find a way to be successful. As Smith noted, he got a taste of whats ahead last season when he played in three games for Tampa against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals, allowing two goals on 48 shots for a .958 save percentage. That sip left him wanting more. Its a bigger stage, he said. When youre that close to being in the Stanley Cup Finals, its indescribable. Its a dream. You want to be a part of this time of year.
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