EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. — Since he has arrived on scene with the Calgary Flames, Mike Smith faces the music.
Good games. Bad games. Good days. Bad days.
The questions are always answered, the mistakes are always admitted and the 36-year-old netminder is always willing to look in the mirror. A true professional in every sense of the word.
So, sure enough, in the wake of Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks which saw him allow three goals on 24 shots — including a pair of questionable markers and one untimely strike — Smith, head held high and eye contact made, answered the questions.
The only answer? He knows he has to get better.
“I feel like it’s coming,” Smith said, reflecting on his game as the Flames cleared out of the Toyota Center after an afternoon practice. “I know I haven’t played my best yet. There’s more to give. It’s about finding it and getting the confidence. And it starts in practice, I’m a big believer in that. The good thing is, we’re up there in the standings right now. It hasn’t hurt us as far as wins and losses. I think once I get my game going, which I know I will, then we’ll just keep going.”
Heading into Saturday’s game against the L.A. Kings, the Flames are 9-6-1 and at the top of the Pacific Division. Wednesday’s loss snapped a four-game win streak and stretch which saw them pick up points in five straight contests since a 9-1 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Most of the time, a chain reaction occurs for the puck to end up in the back of the net. But goalies get paid to stop pucks and Smith, like it or not, is still the Flames’ No. 1 goalie and carries a US$4.25-million cap hit to do just that.
But if you talk to the captain Mark Giordano, he’ll tell you it’s the defence corps’ fault for giving up too many chances on Smith.
“In the Anaheim game, we were looser defensively and gave up more odd-man rushes than we have in a long time,” Giordano explained. “A lot of the goals are rebounds or back-door plays that are right in and we have to eliminate those chances. The thing about Smitty, there’s a lot to his game. The way he plays the puck and controls it is a huge advantage for us to have … it’s like having third defenceman … we’re really confident in him and we know what type of level he’s going to be at, for sure.
“When he sees the puck and he’s feeling it, you can just tell.”
Smith’s numbers (5-5-1, 3.66 goals-against average and .872 save percentage) currently don’t reflect that. But it’s 16 games into the season and while things can turn sideways in an instant, there is still time for him to turn things around and conjure up the magic he had in the early part of the 2017-18 season. And there have been flashes of brilliance — his 43-save shutout against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 9, a 24-save effort in a 5-2 win over the Boston Bruins on Oct. 17, and a 24-save effort in a 3-1 win at Toronto on Oct. 29.
Flames head coach Bill Peters wouldn’t admit to a starting goaltender for Saturday’s game against the Kings, meaning Smith or David Rittich may get called on. However, Peters said that each netminder would get a start in back-to-back games so, if they stick to the plan, Smith will have a chance to play himself out of the funk this weekend.
He believes he can.
“I think I’m my biggest critic … and there’s times when you beat yourself up a little too much,” Smith said. “It’s just not focusing on things you can’t control. Mentally, sometimes that’s difficult. But knowing that I can play better and that I am better, it’s exciting. It’s disappointing the way some games have gone but I’m a better goalie than I’ve played so far this year.
“I think I’d rather start slow and finish strong than vice versa. I’ll keep working my tail off and try to improve every day and get in there and things will turn around.”
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