Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 5/8/12
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With four seconds on the clock Monday night and the Predators making one last attempt to stay alive in the Western Conference semifinals, Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith sent a clearing attempt 165 feet down the ice toward an empty Nashville net. Wide right, by about a foot. "I just said, 'Why'd you miss the net?'" Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked after the game. "We tell our (defense) to hit the net all the time -- you have to hit the net." Smith's first career goal might have been a nice feather in his cap, but he'll undoubtedly think little about the opportunity now that his Coyotes are moving on to the Western Conference finals following a 2-1, series-clinching win in Game 5. Smith was typically superb once again in the victory, stopping 32 of 33 shots and coming about six minutes shy of posting a second straight shutout. Predators forward Colin Wilson's third-period goal ended Smith's 168-minute, 45-second shutout streak that stretched all the way back to the first period of Game 3. With his 32 saves Monday, Smith moved into first place among goaltenders in the 2012 playoffs in saves (379) and shots against (400). In the latter category, only Washington netminder Braden Holtby with 397 is close. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is next with 350. With all the pressure Smith has faced, all the highly skilled players he's stopped and all the unforgettable saves he's made, is there much more to say about his efforts? "No," Tippett said. "In the playoffs, you need great goaltending. It just goes without saying: If you have great goaltending, you've got a chance every night." Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata said of the entire series: "We just found a way to score goals, and 'Smitty' was unbelievable in the net. It was a big effort by everybody, but 'Smitty' was a huge part of it." The praise for Smith, the only goaltender with two shutouts so far in this postseason, was hardly limited to the Phoenix side. "Their goalie was unreal," said Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, a Vezina Trophy finalist himself. "He was the difference in this series." Smith's latest gem hardly came as a surprise, as he's only gotten better the deeper the Coyotes have gone. But neither Smith nor Tippett could let the efforts of the Phoenix defensemen go unnoticed. "They've been tremendous -- they've improved every game," Smith said. "Everyone has been great. That's what it's going to take to win. We're trying to find ways to win, and the (defense) is a huge part of it." Monday featured perhaps the Coyotes' best defensive performance of the series, despite playing without the suspended Rostislav Klesla and going for a while without Adrian Aucoin, who left the game injured. The Coyotes defense tallied 17 blocked shots on the night, and the magnitude of a few was incalculable. With the Coyotes ahead 1-0 near the midway point of the second period, forward Mikkel Boedker got in the defensive act by sliding in front of the net and blocking what appeared to be a sure goal off the stick of Predators forward Nick Spalling from the side of the crease. "That was huge. That's a game-changer," defenseman Keith Yandle said. "(Boedker) is a guy who's playing great for us. He's really stepped it up in the playoffs." Yandle said the defense emphasized only allowing Nashville one shot on each possession and forcing scoring chances away from the net. "All series we just did a good job of giving them an outside shot, and 'Smitty' is going to save that," Yandle said. Few would argue that the Predators possessed more skill offensively than the Coyotes, but it didn't matter this series because of the way Smith and the defense held court. It was exactly that, Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Monday, that beat the Predators. "They've beaten two pretty good hockey teams," Trotz said. "They did it with really good goaltending, strong defensive commitment and some timely goals." While the Phoenix defense remains largely anonymous despite significant offensive contributions from Yandle and Klesla, Smith's legend will only keep growing as the Coyotes continue the best postseason run in franchise history. For a team said to have no star, Smith is certainly making a case for the role in easily the most important place on the ice. But just as the competition in the opposite net increased from Chicago's Corey Crawford in the first round to Rinne in the semifinals, it multiplies again in Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick, another Vezina finalist. With Smith continuing to stand out for the Coyotes, the Western Conference finals will feature a showdown between arguably the two best goalies in the league this postseason. Quick has allowed 1.55 goals per game, compared to Smith's 1.77, and his .949 save percentage barely bests Smith's .948. The only better save percentage is Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider's 1.31, but the Canucks were eliminated early, and Schneider played just three games. If Smith has shown the hockey world anything this postseason, though, it's that he can keep digging deeper. He'll have the chance to up the ante at least once more, this time against hockey's hottest team. "They're a heck of a hockey team, and they've got a great goaltender," Smith said of the Kings. "It's going to be another battle."
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