LOS ANGELES – The future of the Phoenix Coyotes' 2012 season rests on the shoulders of Mike Smith.
Oh sure, Shane Doan is the heart of this team, but Smith is its lifeblood. For without him swatting away point-blank shot after point-blank shot, Doan's two goals Sunday afternoon go for naught and the Coyotes are heading north for the winter.
For the fourth straight game, the Los Angeles Kings outshot the Coyotes, and again it wasn't even close – 36-21. Yet when the horn blew, it was the 'Yotes celebrating a 2-0 victory.
Through 2½ playoff rounds, the Coyotes have now been outshot 552-386, but still they're alive, making high-stake wagers on a high-risk, bend-but-don't-break strategy that relies almost entirely on their goalie being perfect.
There's no restrategizing now. It's the hand this team has been dealt in matching up against a Los Angeles Kings squad that's experienced an offensive awakening in the postseason, and so if the Coyotes are to come all the way back from a 3-0 deficit in the Western Conference final – now 3-1 after Sunday's victory – it will be because of Smith's brilliance.
"You can't say enough say enough about how every single time we've needed a big game out of him [he delivered]," Doan said. "You don't want to say the 'S' word, but it seems that he always throws it out there, and it's just been unbelievable."
"S" stands for shutout, and so far in this postseason Smith has pitched three of them, each one coming after a loss. But "savior" would be a more appropriate term, because that's exactly what the Coyotes need at this point. And if they get it, it ain't coming from anyone else but their netminder.
Doan's goal late in the first period may have put Phoenix on the scoreboard, but it was Smith's resistance in net that meant the goal put them in the lead, not in a tie. "First period, the reason we come out of that period 1-0 is because of him," Doan said. L.A. had plenty of opportunities from start to end – one from Dustin Brown early in the second period that did get by Smith but not the post – but nothing to show for them.
"Regardless of the shots, they look at opportunities," Brown said. "We had some opportunities, but probably not nearly as many we did in the previous games. And when you have a goalie like Mike Smith, he'll make the two or three big saves he needs to."
With each Smith save, the Coyotes grew more and more sure of themselves, his impact felt not just in the boxscore but in the minds of his teammates. As Doan put it, "It's like, 'Oh my goodness, Smitty's on and we're gonna win.'
"That's, I think, a big thing."
As the series shifts back to Phoenix for Game 5, there is this little fact: the Kings have yet to lose on the road in the 2012 postseason. If there is cause for concern in L.A.’s camp it's on the power play – 0-for-6 on Sunday to make it 5-for-70 in the postseason. While a team that relies on power-play goals for scoring isn't going far, one that can't capitalize on the man advantage is giving up free opportunities, which there aren't many of against the likes of Smith, Henrik Lundqvist or Martin Brodeur.
"We've been in this situation before, so it's nothing new," Brown said. "It's just a matter of preparation and really just hitting the reset button and getting ready to go because you don't want to give them any type of life."
Maybe the Kings are due for a loss on the road, as Doan said. More likely they'll come out peppering Smith from the get-go, making him win the game on defense.
It worked Sunday, but can Smith be just as brilliant three more times?
That's a pretty tall order.
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Johnny Ludden: Kobe Bryant blames Pau Gasol for Lakers' Game 4 collapse
• Martin Rogers: Chelsea's underappreciated trio deliver a Champions League trophy
• Y! Finance: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg changes status to 'married'