By Allan Muir
April 24, 2012

It was the hot talking point after the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup with Antti Niemi between the pipes: Do you really need an elite goalie anymore to win it all?

The consensus from this year's Western Conference first round: Yeah, ya do.

There's really no other takeaway after watching the Coyotes advance to the second round for the first time since their move from Winnipeg with a 4-0 whitewashing of the Blackhawks on Monday.

Because, really, the Coyotes didn't eliminate the Blackhawks. Mike Smith did.

This was a defining performance. If a 38-win season and a .930 save percentage did not prove that Smith was one of the game's best, this six-game set should remove all doubt.

And that's why the path to victory was clear early in this series. Phoenix could win because of Smith. Chicago could win despite Corey Crawford.

Ultimately, that's what it came down to, with Smith providing shelter from the Chicago storm, facing a smidgen less than 40 shots per game while Crawford seemed determined to invent new backbreaking ways to crush the spirits of his teammates, especially in overtime.

To be fair, this Game 6 loss shouldn't be tagged solely on Crawford. The Blackhawks played strong defense in front of him, but when they broke down, their gaffes were huge and led to high-end chances. And the way Smith was standing tall at the other end, all the Coyotes needed was to cash in on one.

Crawford knew that, even before watching Chicago outshoot Phoenix 16-2 in a mismatched first period. He looked furious with himself -- or maybe Andrew Brunette -- after Oliver Ekman-Larsson opened the scoring on a power play with just the sixth shot of the night for the Coyotes ... at the 13:14 mark of the second period. Brunette was one of four bodies, three of them wearing red, that were aligned between Ekman-Larsson and Crawford. When the winger failed to get down in front of the shot, there wasn't much his seeing-impaired netminder could do, but the implications were enormous.

One goal down with half a game to go may not seem like much of a problem for a team that made a habit of last-minute strikes in this series. But this was one of those games when Smith just wasn't going to let anything past him.

Afterward, he tried to deflect credit to his teammates saying, "This isn't a one-man sport."

Maybe not, but this was a one-man game.

That was obvious in the first period, as the Blackhawks stormed out of the gates, assaulting the visitors in waves. But at the end of every scoring chance, every turnover, every odd-man rush, there was Smith.

Andrew Shaw rifling a saucy pass from Patrick Kane on a two-on-one?

Marcus Kruger setting up Jimmy Hayes for an uncontested one-timer in the low slot?

Patrick Sharp driving the net and all but driving the puck over the goal line?

It was 20 minutes of total dominance by the Blackhawks. And they had nothing to show for it because Smith wouldn't let them have a sniff.

More of the same in the second. A furiously effective forecheck led by Hayes and Shaw and Michael Frolik continued to create chances. Right up until the one everyone will be talking about.

Jonathan Toews picked up the puck at the blueline, drove left, faked a shot, then threw it across the middle to Brendan Morrison. All alone. Ten feet out.

When Smith's left pad flashed out to make the save of the series, you knew it wasn't happening for Chicago. Then came the Ekman-Larsson goal and another by Gilbert Brule 2:24 into the second.

The end, unofficially, came when Hayes foolishly nailed Michal Rozsival squarely between the numbers and left him bleeding on the ice, earning a five-minute boarding major and a game misconduct with just over 11 minutes left. Antoine Vermette, steadily building a case for himself as the best pickup at the trade deadline, tucked the Blackhawks in for the summer on the ensuing power play.

Ekman-Larsson (who else?) slid along the blueline and threw the puck into traffic. Mikkel Boedker (the OT hero of Games 3 and 4) picked it up and found Vermette open at the side of the net for an easy tap-in at 13:04.

Less than two minutes later, Kyle Chipchura sent United Center fans to the exits after Brule beat two Blackhawks in the corner to a loose puck and fed him down low for an easy wrister over Crawford.

It was a tough way to go out for a team that dominated pretty much until the Hayes major. The Hawks will be left wondering about those brilliant chances that Smith somehow swallowed, about shots that went wide when they tried, in their frustration, to be a little too pretty. And they'll wonder what might have happened if they hadn't lost their leading scorer, Marian Hossa, in Game 2.

Would he have made a difference?

Honestly, the way Smith was playing, probably not.

Not to take anything away from Claude Giroux, but Smith was the MVP of the first round. But will that be enough as the Coyotes move on to play the Predators?

Phoenix captain Shane Doan, famously advancing to the second round for the first time in his 16-year career, said after the game that his team will go as far as Smith takes them. He's right, at least to the extent that the goaltender is clearly the team's most valuable player. But Smith can't win games by himself, and it's fair to say the Coyotes weren't consistently supportive, especially over the final two contests.

They managed to score 17 goals during the series, but they ran up that total against the least imposing goaltender on their side of the bracket. Facing a bigger, stronger Nashville defense backed by the estimable Pekka Rinne in the next round, they'll have to push the play, establish a more effective transition game and spend a little more time in the offensive zone than they did against the Blackhawks.

If they manage to do that, Smith might just carry them a long way.

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