Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith has translated his brilliant regular season into something even more impressive in the 2012 NHL postseason. He’s one of the breakout stars of this playoff campaign, and he bears striking similarities to a goaltender we know very well in this city.
Just over eight years ago, Miikka Kiprusoff burst onto the scene with the Calgary Flames and carried them to the postseason and then to game seven of the Stanley Cup Final. The then 27 year old Kiprusoff was a relative unknown at the time, pried from San Jose by Darryl Sutter in the hopes of finding a true number one goaltender. Fast forward to now, where a 30 year old Smith is tearing things up and has his upstart team within striking distance of the NHL’s final four.
The similarities between the two goaltenders are striking, starting with how both came out of nowhere to backstop underdog teams to playoff berths. Smith played the entire 2011-2012 season with Phoenix, entering the season as the number one goaltender and never relinquishing that title. People laughed at the Coyotes for handing the reigns to a guy who couldn’t hold a number one job in prior stops in Dallas and Tampa Bay. Kiprusoff, on the other hand, came in mid-season and played in 38 games for a team that looked poised to miss the playoffs for an eighth straight year. No one knew at the time the unassuming Finn would turn the Flames into a Stanley Cup contender. The similarities don’t end there, however.
The regular season statistical comparison starts to show some fairly like traits, as well. The winning percentages of Smith and Kiprusoff are tough to compare as one played the entire season and the other played around half of one, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to extrapolate their save percentages. In his 38 games during the 2003-2004 season, Kiprusoff posted a .933 save percentage and a stupidly high .941 mark at even strength. This past regular season, Smith’s numbers were slightly lower with twice the workload. The Kingston, Ontario native finished with a .930 overall mark and a strong .936 number at even strength. Knowing the team in front of him, Kiprusoff’s totals from his first year in Calgary likely would have dropped over a full season, putting him right in line with Smith’s first season in Phoenix.
It’s when you get to the postseason that things get really scary. At the time of this writing, Smith has played eight playoff games, losing only two of them. Kiprusoff played a full compliment of games in Calgary’s Cup run, appearing in 26 games and winning 15 of them. Over that two month run, Kiprusoff put together a stunning resume that included a .943 even strength save percentage, helping boost his overall number to .928. Smith’s overall number is rather high right now, sitting at .943. but that likely will come down over the course of a gruelling postseason. But it’s that .947 even strength number that really sticks out at you, as it’s just four points higher than Kiprusoff’s mark from eight years ago. Taking games played into account, that’s a pretty eery comparable.
To summarize, the most important thing to watch statistically is that save percentage at even strength. That is the most important and most accurate barometer of a goaltender, and the numbers are very similar. Knowing how this particular stat evolves over a longer period of time, there’s a very good chance the regular season number for Kiprusoff would have fallen a few points to be even closer to Smith’s and vice versa with Smith’s mark in the postseason.
To me, the way both goalies burst onto the scene and captured attention was the first reason I decided to write this post. The statistical similarities only came about afterwards and are not a stretch at all; they are very, very similar. But it’s a little too early to compare Smith to Kiprusoff overall. The Flames goaltender has put together seven seasons since as a number one goalie while Smith has yet to follow that path. We’ve seen plenty of goaltenders go the “flash in the pan” postseason route, from extreme examples (Brian Boucher or Ray Emery) to less extreme examples (Jaroslav Halak). For Smith to be considered in the same class as Kiprusoff, he’ll have to put a few strong seasons together in a row. The season after Calgary’s 2004 run, Kiprusoff won the Vezina Trophy, but only after the NHL lost a season thanks to a lockout. Let’s hope that one similarity doesn’t carry over to next year.