As Friday’s game wound down, some fans well on their way to the parking lot, the chants started modestly and got louder.
It was a rollercoaster season for the 37-year-old Calgary Flames goalie, but it said a lot about how he finished it by the fans’ reaction. You certainly can’t blame the first-round series exit on one player and the reason the Western Conference champions are out of the National Hockey League playoffs was not because of questionable goaltending.
Facing 205 shots through five games, including back-to-back outings where the Colorado Avalanche sent over 50 attempts his way, Mike Smith gave the Flames a chance.
Hard to believe he was the same guy that battled confidence issues, lost the starting goalie job for a stretch of the 2018-19 regular season and worked his tail off to improve the situation in the final weeks of the situation.
From evoking the Bronx cheer from the Scotiabank Saddledome fans, to being criticized by analysts and media, to being ripped apart on social media, Smith faced it all.
So, to hear the ultimate sign of appreciation from your home fans in the final game of the season, Smith was moved.
“I mean, I think for everything that’s gone on this season — where I’ve been and where I’ve got to — it obviously feels good,” said Smith. “In a disappointing game, (when) the fans show support like that, it’s a nice sendoff. But …”
In what he called “the ultimate disappointment,” the Flames were ousted by the Avalanche.
Honest and open, and never afraid to tell reporters how he really feels, Smith’s tenure with the Flames has been fascinating.
He was acquired in an off-season trade with the Arizona Coyotes in 2017, a deal which — general manager Brad Treliving believed — solidified their goaltending position with a bonafide, experienced No. 1.
Lauded for his puck handling, competitive personality, and physical condition, he also arrived in Calgary facing questions. Like, his overall sub-par numbers. Like, his penchant for allowing questionable goals.
Then, there was his age — he was to turn 37 on March 22, 2019.
Smith stormed on scene, looking like a world-beater but soon injuries interrupted his momentum. He finished 2017-18 with 55 starts and a 25-22-6 record with a 2.65-goals against average and a .916 save percentage. This year, he struggled to start and his overall numbers at the end of the year — 2.73-goals against average and a .898 percentage — reflected that.
But Smith’s birthday came and went. Coincidentally, it was about the time he elevated his personal play and solidified the Flames’ confidence in him for the post-season.
He was dubbed their starting goalie ahead of Game 1 at the Scotiabank Saddledome. He reaffirmed the Flames’ decision by producing his best effort in a 4-0 shut-out of the Avalanche.
The fans rewarded him throughout the game with “SMIT-TY, SMIT-TY” chants.
The whole scene was ironic.
Because what the masses thought would sink them, wound up to be their strength — and one of their best weapons against Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
With his flat-brimmed hat hung low and covering a sweaty mop of hair with no grey visible, Smith looked defeated in the aftermath of Game 5.
“It’s just a disappointing feeling right now, honestly,” Smith said. “You work so hard. It felt like you climb so many mountains during the season. To have to play 82 more games to get back to this level, it puts it into perspective pretty quickly.”
Prior to the series, Smith spoke about how these opportunities don’t come often. For him, the last time he was in the post-season was with the 2011-12 Phoenix Coyotes.
Self-reflection will happen in the coming days and Smith’s contract situation is up in the air. He’s an unrestricted free agent and sees his six-year deal left over from the Coyotes expire (Arizona retained $1,416,667 of his salary giving him a $4.25-million cap hit with the Flames).
So, now what?
When asked if he wanted to be in Calgary next season, to be a part of the challenge to improve, the reporter hadn’t finished his sentence before Smith interjected.
“This is a great group in here, we have a good bunch of guys that care,” he said. “It just didn’t pan out this year.”