Throughout the National Hockey League regular season, Dan Ellis was reminded almost daily of the success enjoyed by his good friend and former goaltending partner.
"Every time we were watching highlights in the dressing room there was always a Mike Smith save," Ellis, who plays for the Anaheim Ducks, said over the phone from California. "He's just had an incredible season."
Smith's spectacular campaign continued the past two weeks with four wins, a 1.81 goals-against average and .950 save percentage as he carried the Phoenix Coyotes to their first-ever Stanley Cup playoff series victory.
The Kingston, Ont., native capped his performance with a 39-save shutout against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday and made 229 saves in the six-game NHL Western Conference quarter-final to put himself in the conversation for early post-season MVP honours.
"He's done it all season. He's really taken the opportunity he's been given in Phoenix and made the most of it," said Ellis, who became close friends with Smith when they spent a portion of the 2003-04 season with the Dallas Stars' American Hockey League affiliate in Utah.
"He's given their team a chance to make it into the playoffs, to win every night and now to win their first playoff series."
This is the same Mike Smith who was passed over by the NHL's 29 other teams when the Tampa Bay Lightning waived him last season. At the time, he was their third goalie behind Dwayne Roloson and Ellis, finishing the season with a 2.90 GAA and .899 save percentage in 22 games.
Tampa Bay reportedly wanted to keep Smith but he would have had to take a cut in pay from his $2.4 million US salary and play behind Roloson. Instead, he signed a $2-million free-agent contract with Phoenix on July 1 to be their starter after the Coyotes traded No. 1 goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia a month earlier.
It's in Phoenix where Ellis feels management and head coach Dave Tippett - who coached Smith in Dallas - has cultivated the latter's confidence and drive to be a starter. Despite surrendering six goals on 52 shots in this season's opening game at San Jose, Tippett returned Smith to the net for the team's game two nights later, a 2-1 shootout loss at Dallas.
"All the previous situations he's been in," Ellis said, "it's like as soon as you lose a game the other guy's in. It just goes to show that even though you might not be a good fit in one place, all it takes is one team to believe in you and it can competely change your season around. They [Coyotes] believed in him and he's responded, giving them some glowing performances."
In 67 regular-season games, the 30-year-old Smith posted a 2.21 GAA, .930 save percentage and eight shutouts, ranking eighth in GAA among goalies with 20-plus appearances and tying for 3rd with Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers in save percentage and shutouts.
Among the highlights:
"After watching him this year and the way he's grown as a goalie, he's made a lot of references to [Coyotes goalie coach and former NHLer] Sean Burke really calming down his game and being a very positive influence on him as a person and a player."
The biggest difference in Smith's play, according to Ellis, is the use of his six-foot-four, 220-pound frame. When he played in Tampa Bay and Dallas, Smith played at the top of the paint [in his crease], whereas now you'll find him deeper in the net. This enables him to take a short step to get across the net and have a chance at the back-door save.
"I watch his game from when I played with him in Tampa and even in years past and he was a little bit more of an aggressive goaltender," said Ellis, who believes Smith's return to the Pacific Division playing under Tippett has also been beneficial. "He played a bit higher on top of the paint, even held his hands a little bit differently. It seems he's in position all the time [now].
"He's trusting his size more where before he maybe tried to play the angles a little bit more aggressively to take away time and space [for the shooter]. And he's still able to use his puck abilities as a key asset to his game, to the Coyotes' breakout and to breaking down other teams' forechecking style.
"Overall, I think he's made some small adjustments that have been major differences to his game."
From there, Smith has relied on his athletic ability. When Ellis played in Nashville two years ago, he watched video of his friend taking batting practice with the Tampa Bay Rays and launching balls over the outfield fence. The agile Smith is also a good basketball player and comedian.
"He's just a big, goofy bugger, and funny as heck," Ellis said. "He's a very sensitive person but he's a caring person. I don't think you're going to meet too many guys that don't like Mike Smith."
Well, he could be Public Enemy No. 1 in Music City if he outperforms Predators counterpart and Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne and denies Nashville shooters like he did those in Chicago.
"I think Smitty's probably going in [to the second round] and [his] team as a little bit of an underdog," Ellis said. "But I think he's already proven not to take [the Coyotes] too lightly and not to doubt his ability and his team's ability to overcome challenges."
If you continue to see Smith in the morning highlights, chances are he's hit another home run and helping lead Phoenix to Round 3.
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