49
Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

That Birthday Boy

For a guy who wasn’t even in the plans last off-season until the price tag for @Jacob Markstrom took Edmonton Oilers’ GM Ken Holland out of the running to add him to the goal crease, Mike Smith has sure looked like the guy the Oilers can count on as they make their bid for first place in the North Division.

The story we know. After Smith shat the bed in the first game of the Oilers’ play-in series against Chicago last summer, the consensus was Holland needed to firm up his goaltending. Smith and Mikko Koskinen weren’t the answer, so Holland hit the speed dial looking to address the situation. Try as he might, Holland got nothing done and circled back to Smith, who signed on for a base salary of $1.5 million, plus bonuses. We moaned and groaned.

Fast forward to today and the Oilers are 21-13-0 for 42 points after a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday and heading out on a five-game road trip to Montreal and Toronto that could go a long way in determining where they finish in the North Division. Smith, who beat the Jets with 31 saves, has played a big part in that – a bigger part than you or I expected. Hell, I had him written off long before Holland looked high and low trying to replace him.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

It’s a helluva storyline. Smith is 11-3-0 and his .922 save-percentage is the best he’s registered since the .930 he put up with Phoenix forever ago in 2011-12. It’s one made even more unlikely by the fact Smith will blow out 39 candles on his birthday cake on Monday. In hockey years, Smith is as old as dirt, yet he’s taken the crease from Koskinen, who was ridden hard early while Smith was injured. Nobody, not you or I or Holland for that matter, saw things playing out as they have. Here we are.

GETTING IT DONE

Mar 17, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) passes the puck against the Calgary Flames during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t to say Smith is the only reason the Oilers are where they’re at. Connor McDavid, who scored the 2-1 goal against the Jets and has a share of the goal-scoring lead and 60 points, is as hot as he’s ever been. Leon Draisaitl, who scored the game-winner on a sweet one-timer and is second in scoring with 50 points, has his fingerprints all over an 18-7-0 run the last 25 games. Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie have been bringing it from the back end. Jesse Puljujarvi is playing his big boot off. But mercy, Smith has been old man strong.

“We’ve found ways to win in different ways,” said Smith, who slammed the door shut after the Jets jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first 16 minutes. “We’ve been behind and come back. We’ve been in close games. We’ve been fortunate to have big leads in some games.

“It’s valuable to get used to playing in close games, coming from behind in games during the season. Some games are filled with power plays and penalty kills, and other games there doesn’t seem to be much space out there, and you try to win a five-on-five battle. It’s all valuable confidence, and valuable information that goes into the back of your mind every night. Heading into playoffs, you want to be as prepared as possible.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

It’s no secret finding ways to win almost always involves getting good goaltending. Through 34 games, the Oilers are getting it more often than not after a bad start. After sagging under a too-heavy workload early on, Koskinen sits at 9-10-0 with a 3.11 GAA and .903 save-percentage. He was very good in a 2-1 win over the Jets Thursday. The book on Koskinen we know – he’s better with some rest and doesn’t do as well in a workhorse role. Smith has made it possible for coach Dave Tippett to manage that.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Oct 27, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) makes a save during warmup against the Florida Panthers at Rogers Place.

Tippett, of course, knows Smith well. He was the coach in Phoenix back in 2011-12 when Smith recorded that .930 save-percentage to go along with 38 wins in a season when the big stopper played in 67 of 82 games. All these years later, Smith still has that starter’s mentality, even with all those candles on the cake, even if he was the fall-back position for Holland last off-season.

I’m not sure how long Smith can keep turning back the clock, but if he’s got the back-end of this season and playoffs in him at the level he’s playing at now, that’s more than anybody can ask. If there’s that much left in the tank, the Oilers have a chance to get something done. I can’t find a good reason to bet against him.

Previously by Robin Brownlee