Mike Smith the biggest question mark in Flames’ playoff hopes

Nikolaj Ehlers scored once in regulation and again in overtime to get the Jets a 5-4 win over the Flames.

Mike Smith isn’t thrilled about the new equipment he’s mandated to wear, or about how last season ended.

The 36-year-old Calgary Flames netminder blames himself for the way things unfolded down the stretch and is focused on bouncing back to prove his career should be extended beyond this year.

Spend 10 minutes alone with the Flames’ most important player and there’s no shortage of opinions, insights and even the odd laugh.

Asked how many games he’d feel comfortable starting this year, the hirsute veteran shrugged.

"80… ish," he said before breaking into a grin.

"I don’t go into a season saying I want to play ‘this many.’ You go by feel and if you play well the games played kind of take care of themselves."

Cue the addendum.

"If I stay healthy I should be able to play them all."

It may be the biggest ‘if’ of the Flames season.

Given his advanced age and injury history, Smith represents the biggest question mark as the Flames look to bounce back into the playoffs.

Should he return to being the all-star he was the first half of last season, the Flames needn’t worry as much about the unproven backup goaltending Jon Gillies or David Rittich will supply.

However, should he come up lame with a groin-area injury as he did last February, this team could be in trouble.

"I just tried to do too much," said Smith in an honest assessment of why, upon his return late last season, he struggled mightily to right a sinking ship.

"Sometimes it’s hard not to. With the mentality I have it sort of creeps into my game every once in awhile. I’m still learning at age 36.

"I’ll apply that to this year and worry about things I can control. It was frustrating not making the playoffs and I think the group in here is motivated to turn that around this year."

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Few players in the league take losses harder than Smith, making it crystal clear his sole focus is purely on getting this team back in the playoffs.

Doing so would certainly bode well in terms of future employment, as Smith will be a 37-year-old free agent next summer.

"Obviously I want to keep playing so it’s an important year for me, but I wouldn’t say it’s any more important than any other year," said the 12-year veteran.

"I want to win and to do that I have to play up to my capabilities. I look at it like that. I don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary. I just have to play my game and everything will look after itself."

There’s a lot riding on Smith’s six-foot-four, 215-pound frame, which anyone in the organization will tell you is as chiseled as the room has.

His fitness has kept him at a high level this long, but can it withstand the type of workload he’s bound to have to carry in Cowtown?

In terms of preparations, Smith worked on his "fundamentals" for almost a month this summer with his long-time personal goalie coach, Jon Elkin, in Toronto.

"I’ve worked with him since I was 12," he said of the former Flames goalie guru.

"He probably knows my game better than anyone else and has seen it evolve. He’s done a good job to help me out this summer. There’s always stuff to improve on. You’re always trying to tweak stuff.

"The shooters are getting better and there are more scoring chances in the game now and they’re taking goalie equipment away and smaller gear."

And that is clearly a sore spot that could trigger an angry rant down the road if soreness is indeed induced because of the mandated changes to chest protectors around the league.

"I haven’t talked to too many other guys but it’s a change – that’s for sure," said Smith of the more contoured netminding equipment.

"Slimmer. Arms are skinnier. The shoulders are more rounded… that’s all I’ve got to say about that. I’m not going to open that can of worms yet…but it may happen if I get hurt."

Last month Smith received the new gear from league headquarters, designed to promote scoring.

It wasn’t love at first sight.

"It’s always a concern for any goalie when you start taking gear away that was there before," said Smith.

"I’m an old school kind of guy in that I’ve been wearing the same upper body for eight or 10 years now. For me it’s a tougher adjustment because the whole unit is different and the aspects of how it works. And they don’t give you much time to feel it out before you start playing games.

"For the younger guys, they’ve been wearing a similar body type already, so it might be a little easier for them. But it’s definitely a work in progress."

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Smith looked solid in his one outing in China (a 3-1 loss) and allowed five goals on 26 shots Monday night in a 5-4 overtime loss to Winnipeg at the Saddledome that saw him screened on two goals and helpless on another.

Not quite where he wants to be just yet.

Unquestionably the league’s best stick-handling goalie, he added an assist.

"New players and new voices on the ice – its all a process to get ready for the season," said Smith, unsure if he’ll need another pre-season game to feel ready.

"I feel good. Age is just a number as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got a lot of miles left. It’s about coming to the rink every day and preparing every day like a pro and making sure the body is feeling good. That’s half the battle."

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