Winning Play: Mike Smith controls the game

The difference between Mike Smith and Aaron Dell in the San Jose Sharks’ 5-3 loss to the Calgary Flames wasn’t simply goals allowed.

Calgary’s goaltender made a subtle but significant impact with his skating and passing, of all things.

After Timo Meier opened scoring for San Jose in the first period, the Sharks' offense was unable to establish much on the forecheck and the cycle. In a 27:08 stretch between the Meier goal and the end-of-the-middle-frame Mark Giordano penalty, San Jose recorded just four shots, and only one off the cycle, the Kevin Labanc tip-in that went off Smith’s mask.

Smith, perhaps the best passing goalie in the league, played a huge role in blunting the Sharks down-low attack. These stats underscored Smith’s impact:

While Smith and Dell stopped about the same number of behind-the-net rim-arounds last night — non-shots put toward the net aren’t counted as rim-arounds — Smith completed 21 positive plays with the puck (17 connected passes, 4 zone clears) as opposed to just one missed pass, compared to Dell’s 8 positive plays (5 connected passes, 3 zone clears) and 3 missed passes.

By connected passes, I don’t mean the netminder stopping the rim-around, then dropping it off for a swinging defenseman. That’s a safe play that Dell completed with consistency. I mean this kind of stuff:

Smith (41) used the massive combination of his 6-foot-3 frame and goaltending equipment to stop the forechecking Barclay Goodrow (23) in his tracks, before feeding Mark Giordano (5). Smith’s inside position also kept the forecheck away from Giordano.

On the power play, Marcus Sorensen (20) chipped it in softly — but not soft enough — for the chasing Joe Thornton (19). Smith shot it up the boards to Elias Lindholm (28), who touched it toward the middle and an eventual easy clear.

This was another not ideal San Jose dump-in. Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44), on his backhand no less, tossed a soft rim-around; Vlasic’s teammates didn’t have a lot of speed entering the zone. This was catnip for Smith, who gave the waiting Noah Hanifin (55) a hard tape-to-tape pass. Once again, no Sharks offense, easy Flames exit.

“It helps us out,” blueliner Dalton Prout said of Smith’s passing chops. “We’re not taking hits. It’s coming on your tape, you know you have an option. He very seldomly gives you a bad pass.”

Smith returned the compliment, helping to explain why San Jose looked so discombobulated in this particular clip, “The forwards were doing a good job of back pressure. The D hold the line, have good gaps. Makes it easier back there.”

Smith’s confidence with the puck last night was sky-high.

Sorensen bearing down — this Thornton send-in, by the way, was counted as a shot on goal — Smith waited until the last second to backhand it off the yellow to Giordano. The Norris Trophy candidate delivered it up the middle to Mikael Backlund (11), who touched it out.

This isn’t much different than what, for example, Erik Karlsson does on a nightly basis: Suck in the forecheck with patient puck possession, make more space for teammates, then pass it.

Late in the game, Smith threw a no-look pass to Sean Monahan (23) in the corner. This was more than just showing off though, as Smith lured forechecker Justin Braun (61) the wrong way with his razzle-dazzle.

“It’s incredible,” Prout acknowledged. “His poise, his vision with the puck is sometimes better than some defensemen in this league.”

While Dell is considered a competent stickhandler — Calgary’s fifth goal, which resulted from a Dell gaffe, withstanding — Smith is simply in another league. I don’t use Dell as a comparison here to embarrass the San Jose back-up, but to delineate the gap between the two. Another example of this was Smith’s 4 corner dump-in recoveries compared to Dell’s zero.

Because of his superior skating ability, Smith strays from the net without fear.

What’s a forecheck to do against essentially a third defenseman? That’s two D-to-D passes from Smith, stretching out the forecheck, leading to easy exits, and again, for San Jose, no offense.

Smith’s feet also make him quick to stop the puck on rim-arounds.

It’s not often you see a netminder go back like that when the opposition has already gained the zone.

So while Smith’s puckhandling ability gets headlines, his quickness, smarts and length allow him to go from the front of the net to behind like no other. A scout intimated that there’s nobody better in the league in this respect too.

These little plays make a difference, as the Mark Jankowski score demonstrated.

Dell failed to stop the rim-around. Austin Czarnik (27) beat Brent Burns (88) and Joe Thornton (19) to the puck. San Jose’s shoddy defense took care of the rest.

“Smitty has done a really good job here the last six weeks, calming his game down, playing with composure,” Bill Peters noted.

For future reference, how will the Sharks overcome Smith?

Well, for one, get actual shots on net. Smith’s sub-.900 save percentage has been talked about as much as Martin Jones’s. San Jose’s season-low 15 shots aren’t going to cut it in the future.

Speaking of limiting Smith’s puckhandling prowess, when dumping the puck in, the Sharks have to do it with harder rim-arounds or softer dump-ins.

Here’s a hard Tim Heed (72) rim-around that eluded Smith. Smith is nimble, but not that nimble. Of course, you need to have speed coming from the other side to come up with the puck.

This soft Kevin Labanc (62) pass to himself in the corner — note his speed on entry — actually set up 20-plus seconds of forechecking and the Burns blast that Labanc tipped off Smith’s mask.

A soft dump-in to the corner with speed is all important against Smith. Soft in the corner keeps it far from Smith, while speed keeps him in his crease.

Here it is again: Goodrow placed it perfectly, while the explosive Dylan Gambrell (7) entered the zone in stride.

Beating Smith to the puck can be an uphill battle, but San Jose will have to be much better at it if they get to the Saddledome this postseason.