FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE

There’s only one rea­son the Cal­gary Flames are 3-1 — goal­tender Mike Smith, who’s fac­ing an av­er­age of 40 shots per game

The Province - - SPORTS - ERIC FRAN­CIS efran­cis@post­media.com @EricFran­cis

The stand­ings may say oth­er­wise, but the Cal­gary Flames are play­ing no bet­ter than they were last NHL sea­son when they won just once in their first four out­ings.

In fact, this year's team is play­ing worse. Much worse. The dif­fer­ence is Mike Smith.

Glen Gu­lutzan pointed out as much Wed­nes­day night in a heated postgame dis­sec­tion of his troops in which he said he was con­cerned about the team's bat­tle level, ex­e­cu­tion, break­outs and puck man­age­ment, among other things.

The tim­ing of his cri­tique may have seemed odd given the team had just bat­tled back to win a gritty game over the Los An­ge­les Kings in over­time, post­ing their third straight vic­tory to open the year 3-1.

How­ever, with­out Smith's hero­ics this team could eas­ily be 1-3 or 0-4. Prob­a­bly should be. The num­ber that should be trou­bling to all stake­hold­ers is 40, which is the AV­ER­AGE num­ber of shots Smith has faced in the club's four games.

No goalie in the league has been sub­jected to any­where near that much rub­ber.

It's an in­dict­ment of the team's de­fen­sive play, which Gu­lutzan said is re­flected in how badly they've been out-chanced this sea­son.

To put that in per­spec­tive, last year at this time, the club al­lowed an av­er­age of 27 shots against, which is 33% fewer than a squad that should be bet­ter in its own zone given the ad­di­tion of Travis Ha­monic and hav­ing a goalie who can move the puck as well as Smith.

In each of the past two sea­sons, the Flames scored 12 goals their first four games. The dif­fer­ence be­ing Smith has only al­lowed nine in 160 shots, while Brian El­liott and Chad John­son com­bined to cough up 14 in 107.

Smith is stop­ping pucks at an un­heard of .950 clip.

Not to harp on El­liott's well-doc­u­mented strug­gles, but he opened last year fac­ing no more than 31 shots in his first three games but posted a pal­try .873 save per­cent­age to keep the Flames win­less un­less Chad John­son won Game 4 in over­time.

Like Mi­ikka Kipru­soff did for so many years here, the net­mind­ing is mask­ing so many of the Flames' other short­com­ings. That has to change. No team can chal­lenge for 100 points (Gu­lutzan's goal) al­low­ing more than 40 shots in three-quar­ters of their games, as the Flames have so far.

The good news is that with a team as deep, speedy and tal­ented as the Flames, it's fix­able.

The bad news is that if op­po­nents are al­lowed to con­tinue pep­per­ing Smith (and even­tu­ally backup Ed­die Lack) with such vol­ume, even­tu­ally the dam will break and the Flames will strug­gle. Or will they? Smith faced more than 40 shots 11 times last sea­son with the Ari­zona Coy­otes be­hind a por­ous, young de­fence and some­how man­aged to go the first nine with­out a reg­u­la­tion loss.

All told, in those games, he was 6-2-3, which the Flames would take.

He thrives on be­ing a work­horse.

On pa­per, this team should be far bet­ter than the Coy­otes at lim­it­ing such shoot­ing gal­leries, which is ex­actly what Gu­lutzan is push­ing for.

One might as­sume the slash­ing crack­down and in­creased penalty counts have played a role in the el­e­vated num­ber of shots and chances the op­po­si­tion has gen­er­ated.

Not so. Last year, the Flames were short-handed 19 times com­pared to 15 this year.

This is on the team — a squad that is spend­ing far too much time in its own zone, as Gu­lutzan lamented.

A sim­i­lar ef­fort by his bunch on Fri­day night at home against the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors would be a trou­bling sign in Gu­lutzan's eyes.

If Lack starts on Satur­day in Van­cou­ver and plays the way he has the past few years, the Flames could be ex­posed in hu­mil­i­at­ing fash­ion for be­ing far too re­liant on their goalie.

With all the hype and ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing Jaromir Jagr in town, Smith prob­a­bly hasn't been given the due he de­serves for the team's di­vi­sion-lead­ing record.

Few prob­a­bly know his ground­break­ing, 43-save per­for­mance to snap the 13-year skid in Ana­heim was the third-most saves for a shutout in fran­chise his­tory.

Few also likely re­al­ized how big a role he's played thus far, un­ques­tion­ably the Flames' star in all four games.

No won­der Gu­lutzan left Los An­ge­les in a tizzy.

GETTY IM­AGES

Cal­gary Flames net­min­der Mike Smith has had to be rock-solid be­tween the pipes, given his de­fence corps’ sur­pris­ingly in­ept play this sea­son.

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