The Phoenix Coyotes won a playoff series for the first time since moving to the desert in 1996 because they proved a maxim of some NHL general managers – you don't need to spend a high first-round draft pick or make a big trade to get a goaltender.
One year ago, Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith was sitting on the bench as a backup as the Tampa Bay Lightning finished off a surprisingly strong season by making a run to the Eastern Conference final on the back of another retread, 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson. At the start of the season, Smith was supposed to be the No. 1 guy but when he fell flat, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman brought in Roloson.
When Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren reluctantly concluded, based on the evidence of years of playoff futility, that he needed to embrace the other side of the goaltending maxim and spend big money on the Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix GM Don Maloney had to find another goaltender. Since the financially crippled Coyotes are a ward of the state, Maloney had to pick over the NHL's remainder bin.
At first glance, Smith did not have much to offer anyone, even the Coyotes. Six years ago, he showed some promise as a backup with the Dallas Stars. Former Lightning owner Oren Koules needed to solve two problems: shed a big salary and plug a hole in goal, so he made Smith the centrepiece in a trade that saw star centre Brad Richards go to Dallas. Well, one out of two isn't bad they say.
By last summer, Smith was a 29-year-old free agent with few prospects. Luckily for him, Maloney came along with a two-year contract for $2-million (all currency U.S.) a year. Few considered the price a bargain at the time but no one would argue that this morning.
Smith is the only reason – well, aside from Coyotes thug Raffi Torres taking out star forward Marian Hossa with a headshot – the Coyotes knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs. He finished the first-round series with an other-worldly .950 save percentage in six games. He stopped 38 shots in the first two periods of the elimination game Monday night while his teammates mustered just eight. He stopped 229 of 241 shots over the entire series.
People like Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, if he were the kind of guy to admit to a mistake, must be grinding their teeth. How is it that free-agent chases like the one Burke made on Jonas Gustavsson, or finding an alleged gem in your own system like James Reimer blow up in your face while others get lucky rooting around in the scrap heap?
Maloney wasn't the only one to do so. The St. Louis Blues had a great regular season and rolled over the San Jose Sharks in the first round thanks to another reclamation project. Brian Elliott was run out of Ottawa and was also a free agent last summer because his latest employer, the Colorado Avalanche, had no interest in him.
The Blues signed Elliott as a backup to Jaroslav Halak but by November Elliott played so well when Halak struggled early that he earned a share of the job. When Halak hurt his ankle in the opening round, Elliott took over to stymie the Sharks.
There are various reasons why teams can pull success out of a hat with goalies, including sheer dumb luck, while others flail about for years. In the Blues' case, the tight defensive game installed by head coach Ken Hitchcock when he took over early in the season made life a lot easier on his goaltenders. The Blues didn't need Terry Sawchuk to win, just someone to make the first save when it was needed.
In Phoenix, the reason was goaltender coach Sean Burke, whose tutoring helped make Bryzgalov rich. When Maloney was looking around for a goaltender, Burke told him he could get results with Smith. Burke saw a lanky 6-foot-4 goaltender in his own image and lots of possibilities.
It worked out well, as Smith became a goaltender who could not be beaten down low and who could use his size and athleticism to cover the top of the net, too. Just look at the key play from Monday's game – in the middle of the second period, Blackhawks forward Brendan Morrison was in position to finish a classic backdoor play. The puck came across the slot to him on a rush with Smith still trying to get across his crease. All Morrison had to do was snap the shot on the far side of the net, preferably high. Morrison didn't get the shot high enough but it still had plenty of juice. Only Smith got that long leg of his across the crease and blocked it. A few minutes later, Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford coughed up a power-play goal and the Coyotes were on their way.
This is not to say every reclamation project is a sure thing. Not even Smith spent much time dreaming this season about being the star of a playoff series.
"No chance," he said. "Probably through last season I didn't know if I was going to play a game again in this league, let alone get to where we are now."