The only way Tuesday’s exhibition game against the Calgary Flames was going to have any significant influence on coach Dave Tippett’s decision about who to start in goal against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday was if Mikko Koskinen or Mike Smith shat the bed.
That didn’t come close to happening in a 4-1 win over the Flames at Rogers Place. Koskinen and Smith turned in the kind of performances the Oilers will need in their play-in series against the Blackhawks on the way, they hope, to a spot in the final 16 teams for NHL playoffs. Tuesday provided no separation between Tippett’s two stoppers.
Koskinen got the start and stopped all 17 shots he faced in the 29:41 he played, taking a seat with the Oilers up 1-0. Smith was equally sharp the rest of the way. He faced 20 shots in 30:02, allowing only a power-play goal by Elias Lindholm, who tucked in a rebound late in the second period with Matthew Tkachuk running interference in the crease.
While my guess is Tippett already knows who he intends to start against the Blackhawks, he wasn’t ready to declare that to the assembled media via Zoom after the game. Tippett feels he’s got two pretty good choices, which is difficult to argue, and neither stopper did anything to throw a wrench into that last night.
WHAT HE SAID
“Some good, some bad,” Tippett said about his team’s effort in the one-game tune-up before being asked about his goaltenders. “I like both of our goaltenders, they certainly played well. A couple of power plays were all right, but we have some work to do.” Tippett’s full media availability is here.
“I think both guys will play,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard decision, but it’s a decision you’ll feel comfortable with either way because both guys have played very well. I like the position we’re in. They make the decision hard on me. But in actual fact, you feel comfortable whichever way you go.”
Before being forced off the ice for more than four months because of COVID-19, Koskinen and Smith were as close to a dead-even tandem as you can get. Koskinen played in 38 games and posted a record of 18-13-3 with a .917 save-percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average. Smith got into 39 games and went 19-12-6 to go with .902 and 2.95.
Despite some massive swings in performance by Smith – I thought he looked pretty much done at one point and that Koskinen was the obvious go-to-guy – there wasn’t a lot to choose between the two overall when COVID-19 shut things down. That was very much the case again Tuesday. The biggest difference between Koskinen and Smith is their NHL career experience, specifically in playoffs.
Koskinen doesn’t have even a single NHL playoff game on his resume. Smith, meanwhile, has 24 games, a .938 save-percentage and a 2.17 GAA on his post-season record. Sixteen of those games came in 2011-12 playing for Tippett in Arizona. The Coyotes went three rounds deep. How much, if at all, will that play into who the coach leans on most heavily? Tippett isn’t saying.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“I really believe I play my best hockey in the playoffs, and obviously Mikko has played well and wants to play also,” said Smith, who shook off a terrible first half to the 2018-19 season with the Flames and was stellar for them down the stretch and in playoffs. “It will be a healthy competition, like it has been all season long.”
While I don’t see a clear-cut starter going into Saturday, I’d lean ever-so-slightly toward Smith based on his overall body of work in the post-season, but I don’t get a vote. Then again, with how close its been between the two this season, as it was Tuesday, maybe it doesn’t really matter who gets the crease from Tippett Saturday or if there is a designated No. 1 guy.
That’s not a luxury Chicago has – it’s Corey Crawford or bust.