As the goaltender for the New York Islanders, Bill Smith faces fewer shots than his masked colleagues. Smith's job is to stay alert and stop the ones that can turn hockey games around.
Surpassing his usual workmanlike job, Smith performed in perfect fashion against the Vancouver Canucks here Thursday night. The result was a 3-0 victory, the first shutout for him and the Islanders since a 5-0 success in Edmonton on March 12, 1981.
Smith made several big saves among the 23 shots he rejected. With the game scoreless, Vancouver's Ivan Hlinka stole the puck from Mike McEwen and tested Smith. Stan Smyl's rebound was twice as tough, but that stayed out, too.
Then New York was forced to play two men short for a full minute. Smith lost his goalie stick under fire, took a regular stick from defenseman Ken Morrow and kept the puck out of the net despite a barrage of shots by the frustrated Canucks.
Once Clark Gillies scored for New York, it was all over, with Mike Bossy and Bob Nystrom--on an empty-netter--padding the final margin.
Playing for the best team in hockey, and posting infrequent shutouts, Smith tends to get less recognition than more acrobatic goalies who look at 35 to 40 shots a night. Also, critics often downgrade Smith because of his penchant for using his stick on opposing forwards who venture near his crease.
"I'll do anything to win," Smith said. "When I'm bothered, I'll retaliate, but I'm not going to take a stupid penalty. We can't afford it. I can take somebody running me, or somebody spearing me. Sometimes I wish I was a forward, so it'd be easier to even a few things up."
Smith's use of the lumber brings him hate mail, as well as media criticism, but he is able to accept it without rancor.
"I've gotten several hate mail letters from Buffalo, and I'm hated in Montreal," Smith said. "I enjoy it. I keep some for my scrapbook. These are frustrated people. If I was on their team, they'd like it."
So the screams of the towel-waving fans in Pacific Coliseum Thursday night served merely to get the adrenaline flowing.
Hockey is fun for Smith, although he is quick to point out that he would find another pastime if the money weren't satisfactory, too.
"During the year means very little," Smith said. "You want to be first, but if you're 15th you still make the playoffs. It's just the fun of playing hockey. But the playoffs are a whole new story, the difference between night and day. Look at Edmonton--everybody had them paired with us and now people are crucifying them.
"My wife said this is the worst season she's ever had with me. A lot of the playoff games have been close in the third period and it makes for quite a strain. If I'm home and getting edgy, she'll tell me to go to a hotel and rest."
The rewards for that strain soon will be distributed, with each member of the winning team receiving $20,000. There is also a good chance Smith finally will be tendered deserved recognition, in the form of the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup MVP.
Whether the Islanders wrap up the series here Sunday night, or do it on Long Island Tuesday, Smith eventually will become the first goaltender to win 15 playoff games in one year. Former record holder: Smith, 14 in 1980 and 14 in 1981. That is a lot of pressure puck stopping.