The Phoenix Coyotes and St. Louis Blues each have relied partly on stellar goaltending from unexpected sources.
Mike Smith hasn't minded shouldering the load for the Coyotes.
After a record-setting performance, Smith seeks his fourth consecutive shutout Friday night when visiting Phoenix looks to avoid a season sweep at the hands of Central Division champion St. Louis.
Smith had never started more than 40 games nor won more than 15 in a season prior to being signed by the Coyotes last summer to replace the departed Ilya Bryzgalov.
The five-year veteran has turned out to be quite the bargain.
Smith won his 36th game Tuesday, stopping 54 shots in a 2-0 win over Columbus - his third straight shutout and eighth of the season. It marked the most saves in a regular-season shutout in NHL history, and extended his scoreless streak to 219 minutes, 59 seconds.
His streak began with a 2-0 win over San Jose on March 29 - the same day he was named team MVP - and continued with a 4-0 victory over Anaheim on Saturday.
The Coyotes (40-27-13) clinched a playoff berth Thursday with Nashville's win over Dallas, giving them three consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since a run of five straight from 1996-2000.
Phoenix would capture the first division title in franchise history with victories both Friday and in the regular-season finale Saturday at Minnesota.
"This is an important time of the year, and everyone needs to play well," said Smith, who would need shutouts in the final two games to match Brian Boucher's franchise and NHL record of five straight in 2003-04. "We can win the division, and we're all aware of that. So, it's all about winning and not shutouts."
The Coyotes were on the wrong end of a shutout the last time they faced the Blues, as Brian Elliott made 20 saves in St. Louis' 4-0 victory March 25 in Phoenix.
Elliott, another goaltender having an unexpected career season, had his franchise-record shutout streak snapped at 241 minutes, 33 seconds Wednesday in a 3-2 shootout loss to Detroit.
He'd gone his previous three games without allowing a goal and has a league-leading 1.49 goals-against average.
St. Louis (48-21-11) would get the Western Conference's top seed with a win over Phoenix and another victory Saturday at Dallas, but it has lost two straight at home for the first time all season. Coach Ken Hitchcock, a top candidate for the Jack Adams Award, blamed himself for the latest defeat after his club blew a two-goal lead.
"For the most part, it was my fault," Hitchcock said. "I got caught on a line change, and (the tying goal) ended up in our net."
Elliott will get the start over Jaroslav Halak on Friday as the Blues seek their first season sweep of the Coyotes since 2008-09. Elliott made 24 saves in a 3-2 victory Dec. 23, then the Blues beat Smith 4-1 on Jan. 3 in Smith's only start versus St. Louis this season.
Smith is 0-3-0 with a 3.74 lifetime GAA at Scottrade Center, while Elliott is 3-1-0 with a 1.77 GAA in four career starts versus Phoenix.
The Blues are a league-best 30-5-5 at home, which may not bode well for a Coyotes team that has dropped five of seven on the road.
- Brian Elliott