On a purely practical level, goalie goals tend to be generally meaningless. Take, for example, the 11th goaltender in history to score a goal – the Phoenix Coyotes’ Mike Smith, who turned the trick Saturday night against the visiting Detroit Red Wings.
The Coyotes were already two goals up, with time running out, which is why Smith was emboldened to shoot for the empty net in the first place. If he’d missed, they had a cushion – and it wouldn’t have created a dangerous defensive zone faceoff or given the Red Wings a final crack at a tying goal. As it was, the goal had to be reviewed to see if it beat the buzzer – and it did, by less than a second.
There can be a real psychological value attached a goalie goal – and all you had to do was watch the interview Smith gave the Coyotes’ Todd Walsh post-game on the bench to see it. Walsh had the puck, with a little bit of stick tape on it, noting that it was Smith’s first NHL goal. Usually, it’s the sort of ceremony that involves a fresh-faced kid, just up from junior or the minors, not a 31-year-old veteran, with close to 300 NHL games on his resume. But the smile on Smith’s face – and the elation that the team felt afterward – can have a spillover effect on a team’s chemistry. It creates a moment in time that combines laughs, goodwill and generally can help bring a team together.
Smith thought the clock would run out on his attempt or there wouldn’t be enough juice on it to go the full 200 feet. But it did, and there was, and a full house – which happens sometimes in Glendale on a Saturday night when Detroit is the opponent – madly celebrated the goal.
So question: Why do we get so excited by goalie goals?
“I just think it’s because they’re so very rare,” answered Sean Burke, the Coyotes’ goaltending coach and assistant general manager, in an interview Sunday. “It’s not easy to do. Everything has to line up for it to happen. Obviously, the game has to be at a point where the (opposing) goalie is pulled – and your goalie has to be able to get that puck with some time and he has to be a guy that can actually shoot it without it getting knocked down or intercepted. It takes a lot of confidence to do that.”
Smith, of course, has confidence oozing out of his pores. There’s a swagger in Smith’s game reflected in the fact that he did all of his post-game interviews with the team’s player of the game award draped over his shoulder, a bona fide WWE championship belt.
“The way he handles the puck is an example of that swagger,” said Burke. “If he were to have tried that twice before in the game and it had been knocked down, it wouldn’t have stopped him from trying it again. Especially, when it comes to handling the puck, he has no fear. There’s not a question of, if he makes a mistake, he’s going to back off or change the way he plays. That’s the confidence you need to have if you want to be a good puck handler. You are going to make mistakes.
“I’ve told people before, he’s going to score a goal at some point – and he’s probably not done. He’ll score again. The way he fired that puck last night, if you gave him 25 pucks, he can do that 25 times. It’s not just a guy who got lucky and it went in. He can do that consistently.”
Smith won 38 games for the Coyotes two years ago, en route to a berth in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. The Coyotes missed the playoffs last year, but Smith still shared the NHL shutout lead, with five in the shortened season. The Coyotes are on a reset after that season, and are currently in a tough division, with three California teams lighting it up (cumulatively, the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks are 19-4-1 in the early season) plus a Vancouver Canucks team that is figuring it out. So they may be in the hunt for a playoff spot via the wild card route.
More than a decade ago, when he was starting out, Smith played 27 games for the ECHL team in Lexington, Ky., and scored a goal there. It also demonstrates Smith’s value as a puck-handler, one of the reasons the Coyotes value him in their defence-first system. His ability to play the puck far outstrips the average NHL goalie – and takes the pressure off defencemen, even in the era of the trapezoid.
“That’s a big part of the way we play in our own end, especially with regards to our personnel,” said Burke. “We have a few defencemen back there who are lighter guys. We don’t want to see them have to go back to the corner and get the puck all the time and get physically abused. So he makes it a lot better and easier. It just becomes part of the way we defend and break out. If we can get the puck in his hands and move it to our defencemen, it makes it a lot easier for everybody.”
Smith is also a candidate for Canada’s Olympic hockey team, so playing well against Detroit, the only time he would come face-to-face with Mike Babcock, the Red Wings’ and Olympic coach, can’t hurt his chances.
MORE GOALIE CHATTER
The Devils’ Martin Brodeur is the all-time leader in goalie goals with three, two in the regular season, 13 years apart, plus one in the 1997 playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens. Eight games into the new season, the Devils finally won with Cory Schneider, the ex-Canuck in goal – a shutout victory over the New York Rangers. It will be interesting to see how the Devils deploy their goaltenders going forward. When they brought in Schneider in the offseason as Brodeur’s heir apparent, they went out of their way to say the latter was still the team’s No. 1 goalie. New Jersey plays 22 back-to-backs this season, in which each goalie will likely get a start. But in between you’d have to think Schneider will – or should – get the far heavier workload. Right now, his goals-against average is down to 1.99, with a .927 save percentage, while Brodeur is at 3.40 and .865 … Ron Hextall is the only other NHL goalie to score more than one goal in his NHL career. Like Brodeur, Hextall managed the feat in both the NHL regular season and playoffs. Hextall is now back with the Philadelphia Flyers as assistant general manager, returning to the organization where he played after years of managing the same portfolio for the Los Angeles Kings. The expectation is that Hextall will eventually replace Paul Holmgren as the team’s GM; the only real question is when that might occur. The Flyers are off to a disastrously slow start, which cost coach Peter Laviolette his coaching job just three games into the season. The Flyers are on a week off right now, which allows new coach Craig Berube to conduct a mini-training camp of sorts. There were some who wondered why, if they were so unsure about Laviolette being the right coach for this group, the Flyers didn’t make the move in the offseason. Maybe they understood they had a window in October for a new coach to come in and do some real instructing, if they struggled out of the gate. Certainly, Berube will be emphasizing how they need to press the reset button when they start up Thursday, with a game against the Rangers ... The bidding to see which TV network lands Martin Biron will start in earnest now that the former Rangers’ netminder officially announced his retirement Sunday after a 16-year career. Biron was joking about that in September during the Rangers’ training camp visit to Banff – that the competition for analysts is heating up in Quebec, where the expectation is that they’ll eventually get a second NHL team, either via expansion or relocation. Biron has also been a frequent guest on TSN panels during the playoffs, and has a natural on-air charm that translates well in either of Canada’s official languages. Biron was thought of mostly as a backup in the latter stages of his career, but he played 72 games once for the Buffalo Sabres in the 2001-02 season, which ranked him second in games played that year. His best playoff came in 2008, when Biron helped the Flyers get to the conference final. It was one of only two years that he played in a playoff game.
THIS AND THAT
Matt Frattin, the ex-Leaf who went to the Los Angeles Kings in the Jonathan Bernier trade, started the season on the second line, with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. When that didn’t work out, the Kings dropped him on the depth chart and on Saturday, in a 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars, he was watching from the press box, bumped out of the lineup by Colin Fraser … The Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan Miller will be linked to all sorts of teams as trade speculation continues to swirl, but maybe the best landing spot for him would be Long Island, with the young New York Islanders, a team that has a lot of good prospects in the pipeline but is relying for the moment on 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov as their No. 1 man. Nabokov has been a serviceable addition for the Islanders since they claimed him on waivers in January of 2011, but Miller would be a far more secure long-term answer. He is just 33 and about the only reason the lacklustre Sabres are competitive most nights … Right after Miller, the most talked about name in Buffalo is Thomas Vanek, who is on an expiring contract and believed headed to the Minnesota Wild once the season ends. Your first thought might be, after signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to contracts worth almost $200-million, how could Minnesota possibly shoehorn Vanek’s contract into their payroll? The short answer is, they probably can’t this year. The good news in Minnesota is that underachieving Dany Heatley is in the final year of that six-year, $45-million contract he signed with the Ottawa Senators way back in 2008. Even though the contract was backloaded, meaning Heatley’s actual contract this season pays him $5-million, the cap hit remains a pricey $7.5-million. Once that’s gone, there’ll be money available to sign Vanek, especially if he gives the Wild a hometown discount, which he could. Vanek, an Austrian, played his college hockey for the University of Minnesota and his wife is from there. It was the lure of playing at home that convinced Suter and Parise to choose Minnesota from among a host of free-agent suitors two years back … Heatley, in the meantime, has seen his production fall of a cliff since a 39-goal season with the Sharks back in 2009-10. From there, he’s’ gone to 26, then 24, then 11 (in 36 games last year). This year, Heatley was said to be in the best shape of his life and determined to get his career back on the rails. But he has no goals and just two assists in nine games and the Wild had gotten zero production out of its second line thus far this season. Heatley got dropped out of a top-six role for Saturday’s game against Florida, a 2-1 shootout defeat that dropped Minnesota to 3-3-3 on the season. After all the dollars they’ve spent over the past two seasons, the assumption is that the Wild will need to make significant strides this year; otherwise, major changes are coming. Right now, the three players tied for the team’s scoring lead are Jonas Brodin, Matt Cooke and Mikko Koivu. That can’t continue …
Here’s something you don’t hear very often: Detroit defenceman Nicklas Kronwall, via the Detroit News, acknowledged that he was at least partly culpable on the hit last week that saw him leave the ice on a stretcher, concussed, and for which the Colorado Avalanche’s Cody McLeod will face a disciplinary hearing with NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan on Monday. Kronwall noted that he put both himself and McLeod in a bad spot by turning at the last second. “I know he’s a forechecker, one of their more physical guys, and he’s just trying to do his job. For some reason I thought he was closer to me than he was. I almost turned right into him. But that’s history. I’m feeling pretty good and looking forward to getting back on the ice with the guys.” Kronwall has been symptom free and hopes to play again later in the week.