Mike Smith's first NHL game involved the Phoenix Coyotes.
It was Oct. 22, 2006, as a member of the Dallas Stars. He misplayed the puck a few times early, with what Stars coach Dave Tippett called "happy feet"; at one point falling behind his own net and having to lunge for the puck with his paddle. But in the end, Smith had a 4-0 shutout, and his first win in the NHL.
In the 2012 Stanley Cup Playofs, Smith is the Coyotes goalie. Dave Tippett is his coach. After Game 6 in Chicago, the two of them have led this franchise to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in since the Jets moved to Phoenix — Smith's first series victory coming on another 4-0 shutout.
"It's a bonus," said Smith after the game of the shutout, to NBC, "but obviously winning the first series in franchise history is a huge achievement for our team."
Smith was the difference in the clincher: Stopping 39 shots, including an outstanding first period that saw the Blackhawks outshoot the Coyotes 16-2. For the series, he stopped 229 of 241 shots, the most faced by any netminder in the playoffs.
A goaltending star was born in this first round for Phoenix, one that will now battle Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators in a second-round series between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds.
This used to be Ilya Bryzgalov's team, back when he was posting stellar goals-against averages under Tippett in the regular season. Smith was signed last July to replace him after Bryz (space) traveled to the Philadelphia Flyers and their elephantine contract.
Smith signed for $4 million over two years, or roughly $47 million poorer than Bryzgalov's with the Flyers.
Some saw him as a stopgap; a goalie whose numbers had tumbled since his days with Dallas. Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney watched Smith in the playoffs for the Tampa Bay Lightning and sensed "it's there, there's an elite goaltender there."
(You think Yzerman would like that one back?)
Smith, meanwhile, was eager to reunite with Tippett. "I believe in what he does. I believe in his system. I think it's very goalie friendly," he said before the season.
He was also eager to work with goaltending coach Sean Burke, seeing similarities in style, size and comportment.
The results were startling: Smith played a career high 67 games, and posted career bests in GAA (2.21) and save percentage (.930) while posting eight shutouts. His dominance transferred to the postseason, where he didn't allow more than two goals in all but Game 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks, winning three overtime affairs. He was as good as Bryzgalov was inconsistent for Tippett in the last two postseasons.
(Smith also did his part to shift the momentum, by any means necessary. Witness the Andrew Shaw affair.)
Of course, it helps when the supporting cast comes to play. Mikkel Boedker had two overtime game-winners. Antoine Vermette scored four goals, three of them on the power play. Oliver Ekman-Larsson played over 26 minutes per game. Eleven Coyotes scored goals in the win over Chicago. Radim Vrbata, who scored 35 of them in the regular season, wasn't one of them.
So now the Coyotes advance, become one of several incredible fairytales being written in Round 2. This one involves a feisty goalie that went from backup journeyman to playoff hero; a coach who finally has the postseason success to match the massive respect from his peers he shoulders; the captain, who plays in the second round for the first time in his 17-year NHL career; the general manager who finds more diamonds in the rough than Indiana Jones sliding round the nightclub floor in "Temple of Doom"; and, of course, the team that could be one City Council impasse away from relocation.
To that last point: Does Gary Bettman get a Stanley Cup ring if … well, stranger things have happened, right?
Like Mike Smith humbling the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
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