GLENDALE, Ariz. – Phoenix coach Dave Tippett can't compliment goalie Mike Smith enough for his incredible performance over the last three games.
The rest of his Coyotes? Not so much.
With his team scrambling for a playoff spot, Smith recorded his third straight shutout -- but needed to set an NHL record to do it -- as the Coyotes blanked the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-0 in their home finale Tuesday night.
Smith made an incredible 54 saves, breaking Craig Anderson's NHL record for the most saves in a shutout in a regular-season game. Anderson, then with the Florida Panthers, had 53 stops for in a 1-0 win against the New York Islanders on March 2, 2008; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the most saves in a shutout prior to Tuesday.
Smith now has a shutout streak of 219 minutes, 59 seconds in shutting out San Jose, Anaheim and now Columbus – all in must-win situations with a playoff berth on the line. But Smith has had to make 128 saves in those wins and Tippett has had a hard time enjoying the victory.
With 93 points, Phoenix again pulled even with the idle Los Angeles Kings in the race for the Pacific Division title with two games remaining -- the Kings are first in the Pacific Division because they own the tiebreaker. More importantly, the Coyotes stayed a point ahead of eighth-place San Jose and moved four points ahead of ninth-place Dallas – who lost to the Sharks on Tuesday – as they try to secure their third straight playoff berth.
"That's three games in a row. We're going to have to figure some things out, like lineup changes. That's not good enough," Tippett said. "If we're going to have any chance of winning a division, or any chance of winning our next two games, we have to play better as a group."
Boyd Gordon and Gilbert Brule scored goals 2:03 apart in the second period for Phoenix, and Smith made them stand up with a virtuoso performance that frustrated the Blue Jackets at every turn.
"I would think that's what you would call a guy being in the zone," Columbus coach Todd Richards said. "We peppered him all game."
Looking to complete a four-game sweep of Phoenix this season, the Blue Jackets put 39 shots on Smith in the first two periods alone but joined the Sharks and Ducks as shutout victims during this streak. Allen York made 20 saves for Columbus, who had their three-game losing streak snapped – but not for a lack of trying.
"(Smith) was awesome," said Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson, who had eight shots on Smith, but couldn't get one by him. "You need your goalie to play great. I thought we did a lot of good things out there, but we can't fault anyone but ourselves at the end of the day."
Smith now has eight shutouts this season, tying Khabibulin and Ilya Bryzgalov for the franchise record.
"I knew I was going to have to be big again tonight and obviously our team wasn't at our best, but you're going to have games like that through the season," said Smith, who hasn't allowed a goal since the second period of a 4-3 overtime loss in San Jose on March 24. "It wasn't easy, obviously, but it was one of those nights where when I didn't see it, they were kind of finding a way to hit me."
Smith broke his personal career shutout streak of 171 minutes, 41 seconds midway through the first period and early in the third, he surpassed Khabibulin's streak of 204 minutes, 13 seconds in 1997 – the second-longest shutout streak in Phoenix/Winnipeg franchise history
That leaves Brian Boucher and his modern-day NHL record of 332:01 in 2003-04 as the only Coyote with a longer streak. But that didn't come in the pressure cooker of a last-ditch playoff run, and Smith appears to be thriving in that heat. In his last four shutouts, Smith has made 54, 44, 38 and 42 saves, respectively.
If Smith were to blank St. Louis and Minnesota on the road in the final two games of the season, he would eclipse Boucher’s record by nearly eight minutes (339:59).
After making 21 saves in the first period of Saturday's 4-0 shutout of Anaheim, Smith had to make 17 more in the first 20 minutes against the Blue Jackets – seven of them during the first of seven fruitless Columbus power plays.
And just like the Anaheim game, the Coyotes fed off Smith's momentum and took over the game in the second period.
At 5:45, Lauri Korpikoski dug a puck out of the corner peeled back to the right circle and fed a pass across the crease that Gordon roofed over York. It was Gordon's eighth goal of the season, but his first since Feb. 11 (23 games), and it sent the Coyotes off and running.
"I was thinking I was going to shoot, but I had a little more time and I saw Gordo there and he made a nice shot," Korpikoski said.
With the crowd of 13,263 now roaring, the Coyotes struck again quickly. Daymond Langkow lugged the puck into the Columbus zone and directed it to Michal Rozsival. Rozsival found Brule at the lip of the crease and he swept a backhander past York at 7:48 to give Phoenix goals on consecutive shots and more than enough cushion.
From there it was all Smith, as he stopped shot after shot. His masterpiece came seven minutes left in the second period when, while down and out, he stacked the pads and flashed his glove in the air to snare a James Wisniewski shot destined for the back of the net.
"I was kind of off-balance and more out of desperation than anything else I had to throw up a jammer. It was a lucky one," Smith said. "Burkie (goalie coach Sean Burke) kind of frowns on those, but whatever it takes to stop the puck, I'll do it."
By the time his stopped red-hot R.J. Umberger – who had five goals in three games coming in – on a breakaway a few minutes later, the crowd was chanting "Smitty, Smitty, Smitty" and his teammates were closing ranks. Gordon blocked back-to-back shot on a Blue Jackets power play before staggering off the ice to thunderous applause.