Ilya Bryzgalov might have been the first star of March but Mike Smith has easily been one of the best steals of the 2011 free agent summer. Considering his struggles in Tampa Bay, it’s understandable that many downplay his accomplishments as the mere product of Dave Tippett’s system, but he’s putting up the numbers of a star whether he is one or not.
That’s been especially true lately, when Phoenix needs him to play like a Vezina winner – and he’s delivered to a stunning degree. Tonight may rank as his masterpiece, however, as he extended his shutout streak to three consecutive games by stopping 54 Columbus Blue Jackets shots in a 2-0 win.
Update: his masterpiece will go down in NHL history, by the way. Bruce McCurdy confirms that 54 saves sets the new mark for the most in a regulation game. Yeah, that’s impressive.
Sure the Coyotes were “supposed” to win, yet the Blue Jackets have delighted in playing the spoiler lately with three straight wins against playoff-level teams. Obviously Columbus didn’t just roll over against Phoenix – Jack Johnson had eight shots alone – but Smith dazzled in giving the desert dogs a great chance to win at least the seventh seed (if not the Pacific Division).
With that in mind, here’s how that fuzzy situation looks now:
3. Los Angeles – 93 points, 34 regulation/OT wins with two games left
7. Phoenix – 93 points, 34 regulation/OT wins with two games left
8. San Jose – 92 points, 33 regulation/OT wins with two games left
9. Dallas – 89 points, 35 regulation/OT wins with two games left
10. Colorado – 88 points, 32 regulation/OT wins with two games left
The Coyotes and Kings have identical records – even standard wins with 40 each – so Los Angeles likely holds the season series advantage (or perhaps a more obscure tiebreaker). The good news is that the Sharks and Kings close out their seasons with a home-and-home, so one way or another they’ll probably get some help.
Colorado is already irrelevant to Phoenix since it tops out at 92 points while the Stars would be out of the picture if the Coyotes gain a single point. So, yes, the playoffs aren’t a guarantee in Glendale – but they’re awfully close to that.
Perhaps the best news is that the Coyotes won’t have to worry about the Detroit Red Wings in the first round this time – although Smith at least wouldn’t carry the same baggage as his universe-pondering predecessor in the first place.