CALGARY – No amount of post-game accusations or controversy could wipe the smile from Mike Smith’s face.
Already subjected to enough debate early this season, the Calgary Flames netminder was happy his 31-save shutout could do most of his talking.
A 2-0 win over the Minnesota Wild marked his fifth-consecutive win since The Meltdown against Montreal put his status in question.
Mike Smith is the team’s starter, a realization he punctuated with several intense fist-pumps following the final horn.
“I definitely feel I’ve come a long ways in the last few weeks,” said Smith, who has spent the better part of the last two months openly battling confidence issues.
“The game feels a lot more calm and confident and that’s a big thing in this position.”
Does he feel like he’s ‘back?’
“It’s a double-edged sword – it’s easy to say ‘you’re back’ and then next game anything can happen,” said Smith, who has a 1.50 goals against average and .939 save percentage in his last five games.
“You’ve got to not ride the roller coaster. It’s easier said than done. When things are going well you don’t want to take anything for granted, you want to do the things that helped you get it back on the rails.
“I would just say it’s a work in progress every single day.”
Progress is the key here, as Smith’s early struggles threatened an otherwise solid start for a team now officially firing on all cylinders.
On this night it was a pair of Elias Lindholm snipes that aided Smith’s cause.
He was brilliant – by far the best skater on a night in which a third goal of his was erased following a coach’s challenge on an offside call.
A pair of assists by Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano spoke to their excellence as well, as the Flames have snagged 17 of 20 points recently.
These Flames are rolling.
Yet, during post-game scrums it was a violent late-game exchange that had everybody taking sides.
As Mikael Backlund started heading up ice in search of an empty-netter with his head down, Calgary native Matthew Dumba stepped up to the blue line with a hellacious hit that sent Backlund laboring back to the dressing room for the night.
There was no update provided on Backlund after the game.
No sooner had Backlund left the ice than Ryan Lomberg jumped on, racing towards Dumba who hit the deck as Lomberg threw a punch after tackling him.
An automatic suspension is likely in order for instigating a fight in the final five minutes, although the league has some discretion. A coach’s fine is included in such matters.
Not surprisingly, both sides saw the exchange differently.
“(Backlund) was facing him and had his head down a little bit – a good hockey hit to me,” said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau.
“The other part, (Lomberg) comes flying off the bench. I don’t know if he was sent out because he’s certainly not playing the last minute-and-a-half of the game no matter what the score is.
“We’ll have to let the NHL make the decision on that.”
Boudreau also wants the league to look into a third period hit along the boards Mark Giordano made on Mikko Koivu that prompted the enraged Finn to leave the game.
“I don’t know,” said Boudreau when asked if the Flames captain should be suspended on a play he was whistled for tripping on.
“He stuck his leg out pretty good if you guys saw the same thing I did.”
Flames coach Bill Peters threw a little shade at the officials for allowing the hit on Backlund to occur
“We created a turnover in the neutral zone and Backlund had the puck and got tripped — that’s a goal,” said Peters.
“It’s 3-0, game over. That’s where it should have ended. Ref the whole game, play 60 minutes like a player, don’t put the whistle away as a ref. I think there was a trip on Backlund from Granlund.”
Lindholm had strong words on the play.
“I think it’s kind of showing no respect for the player and for the game” he said of the Dumba hit.
“They’re down 2-0 and there’s 40 seconds left. I thought he left his feet a little and it’s kind of a high hit. Hopefully Backs is okay because we’re going to need him.”
Lindholm went out his way to thank Smith for lifting the team to a win despite not being as sharp defensively as he’d like.
So did both coaches.
“He was good tonight – when he’s on he’s really on, everybody knows that,” said Boudreau, providing an addendum obvious to Flames fans.
“When he’s off he’s really off.
“I knew when he was picking (dump-ins) off the boards and the glass he was on his game.”
Reminded how painful his morning skate was when he took a puck to the groin, Smith was asked if he’d endure similar pain for a win every time out.
“100 per cent,” beamed Smith.
Be careful what you wish for.
After all, most of his wishes have certainly come true of late.