In the Absence of Mike Smith, LaBarbera Gives Coyotes a Fighting Chance

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

While the idea of the season resting on Mike Smith's shoulders may still be very real, LaBarbera's recent play is just too tough to write off. The normally defensively sound Coyotes are struggling to clear the zone, while turning over pucks, losing battles in the corners and are handing over scoring chances to their opponents. And with only a handful of players showing up with their game faces on, LaBarbera is giving his team a fighting chance to stay afloat this shorten season.

Phoenix Coyotes fans may have felt their team's playoff hopes skate away and exit the building when goaltender Mike Smith left the ice in Wednesday's match up against Columbus Blue Jackets. Playing only 11 minutes and tested a few times, the starting net minder would not return to game. Head coach Dave Tippett would later list Smith as day to day. While its not completely clear what 'Smitty' may be out with other than a 'tweaked' lower half and for how long, the Coyotes turned to backup goaltender Jason LaBarbera.

For the backup goaltender who posted a save percentage of .912 last season, LaBarbera would stand on his head in the 5-1 victory over Columbus. The mid-week win would be the Coyotes first victory of the season and LaBarbera's first since 2011 when the Coyotes beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 on December 21. More so, Barbs as his teammates call him, looked poised and in the game, making two huge saves within the first few minutes of taking the ice. LaBarbera's play was a sigh of relief as the 33-year old has previously shown more of a shaky performance between the pipes. Often displaying a lack of proper puck awareness and overall tightness needed to handle the offensive power he was facing. Many nights last season's opponents seemed to have figured out the second stringer LaBarbera and began to slowly chip away, opening the flood gates.

In the box score, the Rangers draftee LaBarbera might not look that much better than the last couple of season or in his stint with the Kings. Winning only 3 of his 19 outings in the 2011-'12 season and posting a .909 the season before that, LaBarbera is 1 for 3 so far this season. But the losses dealt to the Coyotes thus far can't be placed solely on the absence of Mike Smith and the presence of Jason LaBarbera in net.

Break downs in the defensive zone have cost the Coyotes their last couple of games. Games they otherwise would have won or walked away from with a point. In San Jose, leading 3-1 going into the third period, Zbynek Michalek was caught more than once out of position and turned over pucks, leading to the Sharks 5-3 victory. The lapsed judgement of the defensive pair Michalek and Oliver Ekman-Larsson would strike again Saturday night when OEL's lack of hustle on a pass intended for him turned into LA Kings' Jake Muzzin's first career goal at 8:35 in the third period. Meanwhile forwards Boyd Gordon and David Moss allowed the time and space for Anze Kopitar to net his first two goals of the season leaving no chance for LaBarbera to make the save.

For the bleeding to stop the Coyotes will have to look much further than it's goaltending as Barbs has been great given whats placed in front of him. And down only Rostislav Klesla as far as defensemen go, the problems lie with the active Coyotes rather than the ones that are sidelined.

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