Before this season, Mike Smith, a fifth-round draft pick of Dallas in 2001, had made a total of 146 starts in net in his six-year NHL career.
Neither of Smith's prior employers ever started him in as many of half of its games in a given season. He'd never won more than 14 games in a year. In four of those six seasons, Smith registered save percentages of .906 or lower. Prior to this season, he hadn't posted a goals against average below 2.62 since 2007-08.
The Blackhawks will face Smith — now the starting goalie for Phoenix — in the first round of the playoffs, which begin for them on Thursday. In other words, they drew an opponent starting a 30-year-old career backup with a mediocre six-year resume in net. Yet Smith is the biggest thing, literally and figuratively, standing between the Hawks and the second round.
Losing Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia in the offseason was supposed to be a huge blow to the Coyotes, who aren't exactly bursting with skilled skaters. They never would have eked out a Pacific Division title without the out-of-nowhere emergence of the 6-3, 210-pound Smith, who went 38-18-10 this season with a .930 save percentage, a 2.21 GAA and eight shutouts (as it was, they finished atop their division by one point over San Jose and two over Los Angeles).
Smith enters the playoffs on a roll. On Monday, he was named the NHL's first star of the week after going 3-0-0 with a .982 save percentage and an 0.67 GAA to wrap up the regular season. His week included a 54-save shutout. Even against Columbus, that's impressive.
Even more troubling, Smith has the Blackhawks' number. He was 3-0 against them this season, tallying 38 saves in a 3-0 shutout on Feb. 11, stopping 32 of 35 shots in a 4-3 victory on Dec. 5 and breezing to a 4-1 win on Nov. 29 with 24 saves on 25 shots. Going back further, Smith registered a 31-save shutout in his only crack at Chicago as a Lightning backup in 2010-11. His only career loss to the Blackhawks came way back in 2007.
Smith's counterpart, Corey Crawford, hasn't done much this year to make me (or any of the Blackhawks fans I know) believe he can match Smith big save for big save. Crawford went 30-17-7 but finished the season 35th in the league among qualifiers in save percentage (.903) and 31st in GAA (2.72) and didn't record a single shutout.
I'll grant Crawford this — he is playing some of his best hockey of the season of late. He's 8-1-2 since the beginning of March with a .921 save percentage. And Crawford does have his fabulous play in the Blackhawks' seven-game series loss to the Canucks last season to give him "he's been here before" cred. Smith has appeared in three career playoff games, all with the Lightning in 2011. He took the loss in his only start, saving 17 of 19 shots against Boston.
Still, I think Smith gives the Coyotes a definitive edge, on paper, in the net. I like the Hawks in most other aspects of the game. Phoenix can't match their firepower, especially with Jonathan Toews likely back in the lineup; the Coyotes had two players (Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata) tally more than 50 points this season. Chicago tied for fifth in the league in goals with 241; Phoenix was 18th in the NHL with 210 scores.
Phoenix's Keith Yandle is a very good defenseman who enjoyed a 43-point season — his third in a row with over 40 points. Let's say he and Duncan Keith, who tallied 40 points and was a plus-15 to Yandle's plus-5, effectively cancel each other out. Even though it was a huge problem for most of the year, I might actually take Chicago's blue-line depth (Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy) over the Coyotes' (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Derek Morris, Michal Rozsival, Rostislav Klesla and Adrian Aucoin) right now.
As an aside, Chicago's play on the blue line since getting Oduya is at least as much a reason that its defensive numbers have improved as is better goaltending from Crawford.
Even though Phoenix is seeded third in the Western Conference to Chicago's sixth, that's a product of it playing in an inferior division. The Blackhawks had the better season, with 101 points to the Coyotes' 97, and is the better team. But if the cliche holds true, and this playoff series does come down to goaltending, Chicago could be in trouble.