SMITH SEARCH­ING FOR HIS CON­SIS­TENCY

Af­ter Ana­heim game, Flames goal­tender takes own­er­ship of early-sea­son strug­gles

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - KRIS­TEN AN­DER­SON kan­der­son@post­media.com twit­ter.com/KDotAn­der­son

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-yearold net­min­der is al­ways will­ing to look in the mir­ror. A true pro­fes­sional in ev­ery sense of the word.

So, sure enough, fol­low­ing 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 Honda 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 Los An­ge­les Kings, the Flames are 9-6-1 and near the top of the Pa­cific Divi­sion. Wed­nes­day’s loss snapped a fourgame win streak and a stretch which saw them pick up points in five straight con­tests fol­low­ing 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 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 said. “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 a 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) 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.

There have been flashes of bril­liance, too, such as 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 com­mit to a start­ing goal­tender for Sat­ur­day’s game against the Kings, mean­ing Smith or David Rit­tich may get the call. How­ever, Peters said each net­min­der would get a start in back-to-backs so, with an­other game Sun­day, Smith will have a chance one way or an­other to play him­self out of the funk. 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.”

I know I haven’t played my best yet. There’s more to give. It’s about find­ing it and get­ting the con­fi­dence.

JEFF MCIN­TOSH /THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Flames goal­tender Mike Smith says it’s sim­ply a mat­ter of get­ting his con­fi­dence back to cure what has been a rough stretch for the vet­eran, and says he’s go­ing to “keep work­ing my tail off and try to im­prove ev­ery day” to help his team keep win­ning.

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