The biggest question mark for the Oilers heading into the playoffs is goaltending.
In general, the league is trending towards seeing teams operate with a two-headed goaltending tandem rather than having an ace goaltender shoulder the entire load alone. There’s an obvious benefit to this, as teams are less at risk of having their one go-to guy get burned out or injured, but it also creates a challenging conundrum come playoff time when somebody needs to take command of the net.
This is an especially interesting challenge in this summer’s modified playoff scenario, in which the Oilers will be playing a quick five-game playoff series with little room for error.
Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith split the net right down the middle this year, with the veteran Smith starting 37 games and Koskinen starting 33. Dave Tippett was able to ride the hot hand while also ensuring that both of his goaltenders received adequate rest throughout the season.
At a glance, Koskinen was the better of Edmonton’s two goaltenders. He posted a .917 save percentage, which was a huge improvement on the .906 save percentage he had in his debut season with the club in 2018-19.
The key for Koskinen this year was not getting overworked. He was at his best in 2018-19 when he wasn’t starting every game. After the Oilers dealt Cam Talbot to Philadelphia in a cap-clearing move and Koskinen took full control of the net, his performance took a hit. This season, the trend continued, as Koskinen thrived sharing the net with Smith.
So, who will get the net for Edmonton in Game 1 against the Blackhawks?
Though Koskinen was the stronger of the two goaltenders this season, logic would lean towards Smith getting the nod off the hop. He had an inconsistent start to the season and looked like he was toast in December, but Smith completely turned things around after the turn of the new year and was instrumental in the Oilers’ strong showing in the second half of the season.
Another thing going for Smith is the fact he has playoff experience, while Koskinen doesn’t. Smith was a key part of the Arizona Coyotes’ deep playoff run in 2012, in which he posted a .944 save percentage in 16 starts. Tippett, of course, was the coach of the Coyotes squad, so he knows full well what Smith can do under pressure in the playoffs.
More recently, Smith was Calgary’s starting goaltender in the playoffs last season. He picked up a shutout in Game 1, but ended up taking losses in the next four games. That said, I certainly wouldn’t blame Smith for Calgary’s failure in that series, as he posted a .917 save percentage in those five games.
So, given his experience, Smith is probably the guy to start Game 1 against Chicago.
But, as I said earlier, there isn’t any room for error in this five-game series. If Smith falters and has a rough outing, we’ll surely see Koskinen get a chance to show what he can do.
The Oilers played three games against the Blackhawks this season and Smith started all of them. Smith was rock-solid in the first two meetings with the Blackhawks, stopping 75 of 80 shots, but he got shelled in the most recent one, allowing four goals on 21 shots before getting pulled in favour of Koskinen.
I’m definitely interested in how Koskinen would perform for the Oilers in a playoff situation. He had some clutch performances for the Oilers in important, playoff-esque games this season, such as his 34-save showing against Florida when Connor McDavid was injured and his 30-save showing against St. Louis right after an emotional loss to the Flames.
We’ve seen a lot of good from Koskinen this year, including outings in which he looks like a legitimate ace goaltender. But the worry here is his durability. When Koskinen shoulders the load and starts to play a lot, he tends to struggle. That certainly raises some concern as to whether he can be the guy the Oilers need him to be during a gruelling playoff run.