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You might not think hanging around chilly Russian practice rinks and watching games from the press box or locker room would be a catalyst for an NHL turnaround, but if the Phoenix Coyotes sneak into the playoffs, they'll have goalie Mike Smith's Olympic adventure to thank, at least in part.
The experience of third goaltenders at the Olympics -- which is what Smith was for Team Canada -- is always a hit-or-miss kind of thing. Outside of extreme circumstances, the third goaltender rarely dresses, even more rarely plays and spends a lot of time on the ice working with other players on the lineup bubble, receiving little or no recognition.
It can be an unfulfilling, even frustrating experience. But for Smith -- who never dressed for a game but was nonetheless a part of Canada's run to a gold medal in Sochi -- the experience was both memorable and rejuvenating. Not that Smith was playing poorly before he left for the Olympics. He wasn't. But over the last month, he has returned to the form that helped him lead the Coyotes to a surprise berth in the Western Conference final in 2012 and made him an attractive addition to the Olympic roster.
Smith's .937 save percentage in 15 games since Feb. 1 ranks second among all NHL netminders who have appeared in at least 10 games over that span. Over that period he's turned in a 1.86 GAA, also second in the league, to help guide Phoenix back into the second Western Conference wild-card playoff spot with less than a month to play in the regular season.
"I think I was playing well before I went to the Olympics, but I definitely came back with a lot of confidence," Smith told ESPN.com this week.
"It was just an incredible experience to be a part of. I just kind of started where I left off when the break happened."
Phoenix goaltending coach Sean Burke, a former Canadian Olympian, admits the coaching staff and management in Phoenix wondered how the trip to Sochi would work out for their workhorse No. 1 netminder. It was pretty clear from the outset that Smith wouldn't see any playing time behind Carey Price and Roberto Luongo. There was discussion in Phoenix about whether it would be better for Smith to be resting and working out at home.
In the end, things couldn't have turned out better for Team Canada, Smith or the Coyotes, who missed the playoffs last season and appeared, a month ago, to be headed for a second straight spring on the outside looking in.
"We were hoping he would take the experience and he would gain some confidence from it, and it looks like he has," Burke said in an interview. "It just seems that mentally he's in a better place."
It has been a most curious season for the Coyotes. After being a ward of the NHL for four years, then finally resolving its ownership issues, the team found itself scoring more goals than in the past -- but seemingly at the expense of the stingy team defense that has marked head coach Dave Tippett's time in Phoenix.
While the Coyotes have spent much of the season in the top 10 in goals scored per game, they have likewise spent most of the season in the bottom third in goals allowed per game. It is a stark departure from the identity of recent Phoenix teams and simply not a recipe for a playoff berth. But those numbers have started to shift in recent weeks.
"I think we've struggled to find our consistency definitely, and that goes with me also," Smith said.
The intensely competitive goaltender admits he was "chasing the game" earlier in the season and not being patient enough, and that led to allowing goals that shouldn't have beaten him.
"It cost us some games, cost us some goals," Smith said of his play. "I've really focused on calming my game down again."
Before missing the playoffs last season, the Coyotes had qualified for the postseason three straight years, including their memorable run to the final four in 2012. With new ownership in place, returning to the postseason this spring is imperative to prove to the fan base that the team is on the right track and deserves support.
|Smith regaining his calm in net has boosted his play recently.|
If the Coyotes do, Smith will be a catalyst. His play against other Pacific Division powers has been exemplary; he has gone 11-4-4 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.76 GAA in 22 games against teams in what is the toughest division in the league. Overall, Smith leads all NHL netminders in appearances, starts, shots against, saves and total ice time. And he'll shoulder the bulk of the workload down the stretch for the Coyotes.
"At a time of year when wins are so hard to come by, he's probably playing his best hockey," said Burke, who has been instrumental in reviving Smith's career as a top-flight NHL goalie since signing with Phoenix in the summer of 2011.
Former NHL netminder and current broadcast analyst Kevin Weekes agrees with Smith's self-analysis -- that the patience required for the kind of game Smith plays is back on display. Weekes said that Smith plays deeper in the net, similar to former Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, which means he can't cheat and commit to a play in front too early because it will allow opportunities for severe-angle shots to find the back of the net.
But when a team isn't playing well defensively, as was the case earlier in the season for the Coyotes, "it's easy to lose a little bit of that patience," Weekes told ESPN.com.
Weekes isn't surprised that the Olympic experience had such a profound impact on Smith. He said Team Canada members and others he's talked to praised Smith's attitude in Sochi.
"Look at the guys he was practicing with -- those guys are world-class players," Weekes noted.
It's interesting that the Coyotes are battling the Dallas Stars for the final wild-card spot in the West. The Stars are another team that has endured financial issues and an ownership change in recent years. Dallas has missed the playoffs for five straight years, and if there are two teams more desperate to qualify for the playoffs to prove something to their fans -- and owners -- you'd be hard-pressed to find them. Call this duel the Desperation Cup.
Burke admits the Coyotes haven't played the way they need to at times this season, hence their life-and-death struggle for the last playoff spot.
"We're probably right where we should be," he said.
But over the past three weeks or so, the Coyotes have started to reaffirm their identity and their play. And their climb through the standings has reflected that.
"I think we're a lot closer to that [identity] now," Burke said.
Can the Coyotes complete the charge?
Both Dallas and the Yotes have difficult schedules closing out the season. Starting with their visit to Philadelphia on Thursday -- a 4-2 loss to the Flyers that put them at 69 points, four behind Phoenix with a game in hand -- the Stars close with eight road games in their final 13 contests. The Coyotes play seven of their final 12 against teams currently occupying playoff spots.
Game 82 on the final day of the regular season? Dallas visits the Coyotes in Glendale. Oh boy.
"One thing I learned a long time ago, never bet against the Phoenix Coyotes," Weekes said. "I really think they have a great chance of getting in [the playoffs]. And after that, they might be able to make some noise."