GLENDALE -- It was an incredible honor, the fulfillment of a boyhood dream and the continuation of a family tradition.
But for Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, being selected to represent Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics was an additional reason to be concerned with his inconsistent play. Instead of enjoying the moment, it served as another impetus to iron out his problems between the pipes as soon as possible.
Smith got off to an 11-3-3 start this season and the Coyotes challenged for the best record in the conference. But since a 4-3 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 21, the Coyotes' most important player for the past three seasons had three wins in 18 decisions. Three wins in two months. His goals-against average was approaching 3.00 and his save percentage plummeted toward .900, not exactly the credentials any goaltender wants to take into the Olympics.
"You're already trying so hard to win games and putting that added pressure on yourself," Smith said. "Then you get added to the Olympic team and there is even more pressure to perform and do well.
"I'm already one to put enough pressure on myself," he said with a smile. "I don't need other things to add to it."
The reasons the Coyotes have slipped from a 14-4-4 start to ninth place in the Western Conference go deeper than Smith's play. The offense had dried up. The penalty kill has sagged due to injuries. The defense doesn't have the same size and hasn't shown the same mentality as previous Phoenix teams that have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But as one of the most visible players, and one who relishes his role as team leader despite his position, Smith didn't need any pointing fingers. He knew he had to be better.
"He cares a lot and he thinks a lot and sometimes he does overthink the game," Phoenix Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "He's an unbelievable player and an unbelievable athlete. If he just lets his talents take over and doesn't think too much about, it he'll come out ahead."
Smith said at the lowest point, his confidence level reminded him of his pre-Coyotes days, when he lost his starting job with the Tampa Bay Lighting in 2010-11 and wound up back in the minors.
"It's been a frustrating stretch of hockey for me, and when things aren't going well it makes it hard to snap out of it," Smith said. "I don't know what the stats were, but it had been forever since we'd won when I was in there. Then you get named to the team (on Jan. 7) and … I'm not saying I didn't deserve it, but you almost felt that way with the way I was playing.
"That mindset had to change. I had to remember that I'm a good goaltender, I've shown that and I can't get down when things go bad. It's a big life lesson, and one I'll definitely be smarter for because I went through it."
Smith allowed five goals in a 5-1 loss at Winnipeg on Monday, a game when his normally elite puckhandling skills deserted him. But he felt comfortable in the net for the first time in a while.
"I made some good saves and I felt like it was coming," he said. "I was looking forward to the next game."
The next night, Smith looked sharp in a 2-1 road loss to the St. Louis Blues and knew he'd found a rhythm.
"But we still didn't win," he said. "That's what was missing."
The last step came Thursday, when Smith made 29 saves in his 25th career shutout (first of the season), a 1-0 victory against the Vancouver Canucks. Smith was tracking shots, controlling rebounds, handling the puck with ease, and drawing in all the confidence he could find.
"We've been searching for one of these for a little while, to know we can win a close game," Smith said. "Everyone did their part, and being in the right frame of mind allowed me to do my part. It seems silly to say, but to win hockey games, you need to realize that there is more to life than winning hockey games.
"I have a wonderful family at home, two beautiful kids and an unbelievable wife, that are a lot more important than playing hockey. Once I stepped back and really realized that, it's been a lot more fun to come to the rink. Worrying about everything made me take a step back. I've been more positive in here and I definitely feel more energized and better about my game right now."
Family will play a key role in the trip to Sochi. His wife, Brigitte (Acton) Smith, represented Canada as a skier in the 2006 Turin and 2010 Vancouver Olympics; Brigitte's mother, Diane Pratte, skied for Canada in the 1972 Sapporo Olympics. All three were together at Smith's home in Scottsdale when the call came from Canada associate director of player personnel Doug Armstrong.
"I was trying to hold back the tears," Mike Smith said. "Brigitte's grandparents were there and were saying in their cute little French voices, 'Now there are three Olympians in the house.'"
But first there are three weeks of the NHL season and an opportunity to move the back into a playoff spot with seven of 11 games at home, and with Smith feeling his extended slump is behind him.
"Smitty is a special athlete, and when he's feeling the right way, we win," captain Shane Doan said. "There is no more important position in sport than a goaltender in hockey. If you have a good goalie you have a good team, and we know we have a good goaltender."
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