Having seen so much of Mike Smith over the years and knowing how streaky he can be, I probably should have known better than to write him off after a terrible stretch of games in November and December, but write him off I did. Get him out of there. He’s done. Go with Mikko Koskinen, I said. Sure.
Yet there was Smith Saturday, on his face, on his ass, lurching around the goal crease as he tends to do while battling pucks and shooters like there was no tomorrow. It wasn’t pretty and never has been with Smith, but, style points meaning SFA to the bottom line, he got the job done again, this time with 39 saves in a 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets in his latest up-yours to the many critics who deemed him done.
Since the calendar turned to 2020, when the Oilers have needed him most in a heated battle for Western Conference playoff spots, Smith has gone 11-1-4 on one of those streaks — this time white hot instead of stone cold — he’s been known for much of his career. Smith did much the same thing in the second half of last season and in the playoffs with the Calgary Flames.
While Smith’s save percentage today, .905, still isn’t anything to write home about, it’s a far cry from the hideous .853 he posted in a stretch of 11 games in November and December when a lot of people were calling for more Koskinen or a trade for a back-up goaltender. Save percentage doesn’t tell the whole story of course, and it damn sure doesn’t measure the dogged desire to get up off the canvas and slug it out we’re seeing from Smith again.
GAMES THAT MATTER
Style-wise, watching Smith, who improved to 18-10-6, is a bit like seeing a re-boot of Dwayne Roloson from 2006, right down to his mask flying off as waves of attackers storm the blue paint. Roloson saved his best stuff for the post-season his first year in Oilers’ silks. Smith is providing it now, with the race to the post-season headed for home.
“I mentioned it a little bit this morning,” Smith said. “These are the games you want to play in. These are what gets the juices flowing and are why you play. I’ve played for a long time. I’ve played in a lot of meaningless games at this time of year and it’s no fun at all. I think this is when it’s fun, this when you want to play and when you want to play your best. Our team found another way to get two points at home.
“It was a head-to-head matchup. I think one or two points difference. Not much needs to be said after that, so I think just looking at the standings and knowing how important every game is, understanding how important the schedule is and the standings are, you just want to get points every night. It was a short homestand, so we wanted to make the best of it and go back on the road and try to collect some more.” Smith’s interview is here.
With Leon Draisaitl scoring two goals and hitting 102 points with an assist on the winner by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers are 34-23-8 for 76 points as they hit the road for games in Nashville, Dallas and Chicago. The win started with Smith refusing to give up another goal with the Jets up 2-1. Said RNH: “He was outstanding from the first shift to the last shift. We have so much confidence in him and Mikko. Tonight showed why.”
THE WAY I SEE IT
Having ridden Smith, not to mention Draisaitl, during a stretch when they’ve lost key players to injury but stayed in the race, the Oilers have some mojo going as they hit Music City. Kris Russell is back. Kailer Yamamoto is set to return. At some point, Oscar Klefbom will be back. The Oilers have refused to buckle under adversity from the blue paint on out.
I didn’t see this coming when Smith and the Oilers collectively went sideways in December and neither did many of you. I lost count of how many times I used the term “Smith on his face again” on Twitter to describe a goal when it looked like he couldn’t stop a beach ball. I’ll be damned if Smith hasn’t got up off the deck every time, still swinging. Here we are.