After watching Mike Smith struggle again in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Friday, it’s no surprise Mikko Koskinen will get the goal crease for the Edmonton Oilers when the Montreal Canadiens come calling at Rogers Place tonight. The Oilers need a win and Koskinen gives them the best chance to get it.
As bad as Smith is going right now – his save percentage in his last five games is .840, .769, .864, .846 and .868, leaving him at .893 overall in 19 appearances – and assuming that winning trumps all, including keeping Smith happy, I can’t find a compelling case against starting Koskinen in all 13 games the Oilers play between now and Jan. 31. Can you?
Yes, it’s duly noted there’s more to the Oilers 1-5-1 record over the last seven games than goaltending, and that overall save percentage doesn’t tell the whole story. Lack of 5-on-5 scoring is an issue. Not being able to win when Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are held off the scoresheet, as was the case Friday, is a factor. So, yes, it’s not just goaltending. That’s understood, but I’m starting there.
Koskinen, who sits at 12-6-2 with a 2.63 GAA and .919 save percentage in 22 games, has separated himself from Smith, who is 7-9-2 with 3.14 and that .893, with 44 games remaining. If coach Dave Tippett wants the best chance to win games, there’s no reason not to run the towering Finn in the next 13 games because they are spread over 42 days – unless the wheels fall right off Koskinen or he is injured. Smith might not like that, but such is life.
THE BEST BET
Like I said earlier, overall save percentage does not tell all. Smith was beaten for goals on a couple of breakaways Friday. The Oilers have been guilty of giving up too many Grade A chances, of that there is no debate. Aside from defensive breakdowns, there are screen shots and deflections. At some point along the way, the bottom line is teams need to get a save from their goaltenders. It has been a struggle for Smith to provide it.
“At important times in games, we’re either making too many mistakes and they can’t get covered up, or for myself I can’t get a save at the right time of the game,” said Smith, who started the season in tandem with Koskinen before struggling. “You make one of those breakaway saves and it’s probably a different game.”
“As the season goes, there are different things that keep you above board,” Tippett said. “Over the last couple of weeks, our 5-on-5 scoring has been minimal. Couple that with some of the mistakes we’re making and goaltending being not quite as strong as it was early in the year, you’re chasing games.” Such was the case again Friday as the Oilers spotted the Penguins a 2-0 lead – the fourth straight game at home they’ve gone down 2-0.
Chad Ruhwedel snuck one past Smith on a wrist shot from the point to make it 1-0. Joseph Blandisi bolted out of the penalty box and tucked a backhand past Smith on a breakaway to make it 2-0. Neither goal could be categorized as terrible on Smith’s part, but as has been the case too often lately, the timely save wasn’t there. No matter how well or how poorly the rest of a team’s game is going, that timely save is the foundation. Without it, you’re done.
HOLD MY BEER
It’s fair to note that Koskinen struggled mightily last season when he was used way too much in the final 30 games of the schedule and wore down. In all, Koskinen played in 55 games, 51 of those being starts. A heavy workload for a guy who spent the better part of a decade over in Europe – he never played more than 49 games in a season — after getting into just four games with the New York Islanders in 2010-11.
Having built-in breaks and the chance to recover physically and mentally matters. In that regard, there are no back-to-back games during the next 13-game stretch. Again, those games are spread over 42 days. Unless Koskinen gives me reason to plan otherwise, I wouldn’t play Smith again until Feb. 1 against Calgary in the second half of the next back-to-back (St. Louis Jan. 31).
For context, Koskinen could play every one of the 44 remaining games and that would put him at 66 this season. That’s not close to Grant Fuhr’s record of 79 games (he played 75 in 1987-88) or the 73 Cam Talbot played in 2016-17. Again, for context, all time, NHL goaltenders have played 67-or-more games in a season 193 times. Then, there’s Glenn Hall, who might wonder what all the fuss is about after playing 502 (552 counting playoffs) consecutive games from 1955 to 1963.
I’m not for a second suggesting that Tippett should try to run the table with Koskinen in the next 44 games – there are five back-to-back situations remaining. That said, I can’t think of any reason why we should see Smith get a start in the next 13 games. Tippett has to ice his best team if the Oilers are going to stay in the playoff race, and that means Koskinen gets the crease.