The biggest question mark for the Calgary Flames heading into the season was Mike Smith.
One month in, he’s proven to be their most valuable player, prompting Sean Monahan to chuckle at the mere notion Smith was a wild card.
“I know how good he was in Phoenix – he made a lot of big saves on me,” said Monahan, breaking into a broad grin. “He’s such a gamer. I actually remember one game I put the puck in after the whistle and he took a snapshot at me and almost hit me in the back of the head. We were just joking about that when he signed. He’s a great goalie and he’s kept us in a lot of games – night in and night out we’ve got to give him credit. He’s been our number one guy all year.”
Coming off another heroic 43-save effort that saw his Flames somehow snag a 2-1 overtime victory over Pittsburgh Thursday, Smith’s dressing room smile turned into a hearty laugh when asked about his attempted sniping of his new teammate.
“I almost hit him,” recalled Smith, known league-wide for being the best stick-handler of all netminders.
“As soon as I let go of the puck I felt terrible. I was worried it was either going to hit him or go over the glass and hit a fan in the stands. I’ve regretted it ever since. But we’ve talked it over and we’re buddies now.”
Smith is everyone’s best friend in Calgary these days as he has almost single-handedly prevented the Flames from starting with the same type of 5-10-1 start they had last year. With back-to-back 2-1 wins over visiting Washington and Pittsburgh this week, the team is starting to show signs of getting the swagger back that helped the Flames win a franchise-record 11 in a row last year to save the season.
The difference early this year is they have goaltending, which could make the Flames one of the scarier teams in the NHL once they find their stride. Thursday was the third time this season Smith has stopped more than 40 shots for a win, with Thursday’s ego-booster including 19 saves in a first period onslaught by the Penguins that should have had the visitors up by at least three or four.
“They brought us one of their two Stanley Cup performance kind of games and our goalie bailed us out, 100 per cent,” said Flames coach Glen Gulutzan.
“It’s one of the best goalie performances I’ve seen in a long time. It gives you confidence going into any building.”
Three games into a seven-game homestand, the Flames moved to 7-6, a record they should feel fortunate to have given how many shots they routinely give up, and the fact only one player outside of the top two lines – Kris Versteeg – has scored this year.
Like Miikka Kiprusoff did here for so many years, the 6-foot-4, freakishly athletic Smith has been able to mask various shortcomings the Flames has had thus far. While that may be surprising to those who shuddered when the Flames traded for the 35-year-old this summer, those paying attention knew Smith was actually coming off one of the best seasons of his career.
“I think last year was probably the most consistent hockey I’ve played over the course of one year,” said Smith. “Obviously the wins weren’t there but, personally, my goal was I didn’t want goaltending to be an excuse or an issue for us losing hockey games.
“I tried to carry that same momentum from last year into a new season with a new team. Obviously you want to get off to a good start and be an impact player and be solid for this group and get the confidence from them early in the season. I just want to keep that going.”
Secondary scoring, backup goaltending and special teams are still major question marks for the club, as is the health of Jaromir Jagr, who seemed to have a bit of a setback Thursday when his groin injury prompted him to skip the team’s morning skate.
However, two significant wins for a team that needed something to help turn around a 1-4 stretch could do wonders for a team that can also take solace in the fact Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are off to uncharacteristically hot starts.
The club’s vaunted defence seems to be rounding into the form that tabbed them as one of the league’s best on paper, with captain Mark Giordano leading the way once again. But nothing has lifted this team’s spirits or chances of winning every night than Smith’s inspiring play.
“When you know you have a goalie like that there is a sense of assurance that you’ve got a guy battling every night and one of the league’s best goalies,” said Gulutzan, a calm, measured sort who has shown tremendous frustration several times already this year. “I think as the game (against Pittsburgh) went on, the way we came back for Smitty was a big thing – we showed him we can play with, well, the top team, there’s no disputing that. We responded in a positive way and that will help us moving forward.”
Smith has started all but one game this season, including an historic shutout against the Ducks that stopped the Flames’ 13-year drought in Anaheim. He’s held the fort while the Flames scramble to find their game.
“No matter how many shots you give up it’s still rewarding to beat two good clubs like that, especially in tight hockey games,” said Smith, now sporting a 2.19 GAA and stunning .936 save percentage.
“They’re both powerhouses in the East and we want to be touted as one of those groups in the West, especially in close games. If you’re going to win down the stretch and in the playoffs you need to win tight hockey games. This is all a learning process for this group. Learning how to win close games against good teams is priceless.”
So is finding a goalie, seemingly lost in the desert, to help stabilize a promising squad that would otherwise be digging out of more than just snow today.