Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 4/24/12
According to Nashville legend, Pekka Rinne played so little in his homeland of Finland that the Predators' scout who discovered him based his reports on what he saw in warmups. According to actual league transactions, Mike Smith was waived by the Tampa Bay Lightning almost 14 months ago because he was the third choice behind starter Dwayne Roloson and backup Dan Ellis. Maybe it was a simple change of scenery that altered the course of these two goalies careers. Maybe theyre in the right systems with the right coaches and right players in front of them. Maybe theyre finally realizing their potential. Maybe its all of the above. But as the Coyotes prepare to face the Predators in the Western Conference semifinals, the central storyline of this series revolves around two goaltenders playing at a world-class level a level that has them among a select few when talk turns to the Vezina Trophy. Those are your hopes when you bring in a goalie that he comes in and plays at that level, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. Our mind-set at the start of the year was that we needed to have top-10 goaltending in the league to compete. Smittys really taken care of that end of things. As the Coyotes entered the postseason, their fans, the local media, Tippett and general manager Don Maloney all held their breath, wondering of Smith could follow up an impressive regular season with an even better postseason. In other words, could he do what his predecessor, Ilya Bryzgalov, could not? He already has. After one round, Smith is third in the league in save percentage (.950), fifth in goals against average (1.81) and hes faced a league-high 241 shots, 25 more than his closest competitor, Washingtons Braden Holtby, and 69 more than the next guy, L.A.s Jonathan Quick. Theres not a lot of time to think out there, Smith said with a wry smile, but maybe thats a good thing. Just read and react. Weve driven this point home many times since the start of the 2011-2012 season. It was clear throughout the year that Maloneys decision to let Bryzgalov walk via free agency in favor of Smith was a good one. Had it not been for Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleurys complete meltdown in the postseason, Bryzgalov would be facing heavy criticism from the notoriously tough Philadelphia media. He ranks 18th out of 19 postseason goalies in save percentage (.871) and goals against average (3.89), besting only Fleury, who he just beat in the first round. Bryzgalov signed a nine-year, 51 million deal with the Flyers. Smith signed a two-year, 4 million deal with the Coyotes. So Maloney got value while reaffirming the notion that his coach is a superb evaluator of talent. I had Smitty as a young player, so I saw how he conducted himself -- what kind of player he was, what kind of person he was, said Tippett, who coached a young Smith in Dallas. For whatever reason, his potential just hadnt come to fruition yet. But coming in here with the background I had with him and the way I like to play and Sean Burke as his goalie coach, I just thought hed be a great fit, and hes just taken the ball and run with it. Rinne has done the same. He was a finalist for the Vezina last season and might earn that distinction again this year after posting a .923 save percentage, the seventh best mark in the league. Through five games of the playoffs, he is fifth in save percentage (.944) and tied with Smith in goals against average. "You saw in practices he was a good goalie every time he got a chance to play," said Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who was Rinnes teammate in Finland's elite league, playing for Karpat Oulu. "You could tell by the way he approached hockey, his life and the way he works, it's going to do really good things for him. For sure, as a goalie or even as a player, you always need a little bit of luck to get over that hump to be a really top player, but he had all the tools. His work habits were his strength." Rinne signed a seven-year, 49 million deal in November. Nobody is talking about Smiths contract yet, with one year left on his deal, but given the kind of performance he has turned in this season, a contract extension this offseason might warrant discussion. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy a goaltending exhibition between two guys at the top of their games. Both goalies are big Rinne is 6-5, Smith is 6-4 both employ the butterfly and like to play deep in their crease, both are athletic and both are at their best when employing the same style. Using their size and an economy of motion, Burke said. Smith is coming off the perhaps the best first round of any goalie in this years postseason, punctuating it with the franchises first postseason road shutout on Monday. But as he said, there has been little time to reflect. Im sure when the season is over, Ill look back on it and reminisce,but right now Ive got a job to do, he said. Theres still much more to accomplish.
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