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A Different Kind of Animal

With the Edmonton Oilers on the ice for practice Monday and later in front of the notepads and cameras via Zoom, coach Dave Tippett and at least two of his players referred to the playoffs as a different kind of animal. We’ve all seen enough over the years to understand they’re right about that as the Oilers get ready to face the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday.

The way I see it, they could just as well have been talking about Mike Smith, who looks like he’d be as comfortable playing lead guitar for a metal band or zipping down the highway on a vintage Harley Davidson as he is stopping pucks for the Oilers, which he’s done at a ridiculous rate this season for a guy who has blown out 39 candles on the birthday cake.

Whether it was his on-brand response when he was asked recently if beating the Calgary Flames — for whom he toiled before arriving in Edmonton — and ending their playoff hopes, or his thrashing around in the crease and battling to make every save with hair everywhere and his mask flying off, there’s no question Smith is a different animal. Intense. Shades of Billy Smith, Ron Hextall and, more recently, Dwayne Roloson.

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All that aside, Smith had the kind of numbers this season, going 21-6-2 with a 2.31 GAA and a save-percentage of .923 in the 32 games he played, to turn doubters, and there were many during the last off-season, into believers. With the post-season here, Smith is in his element. The way I see it, Smith gives the Oilers a chance of getting something done. Not just against the Jets, but beyond that. A different kind of animal indeed.

A FIGHTING CHANCE

Mar 27, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) defends the goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

While I get it that some fans have Smith’s poor performance against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first game of a play-in series last August – he allowed five goals on 23 shots in 26:32 on the way to a 6-4 loss – top of mind, it’s an outlier for him. I bet it eats at him more than it does you as he gets ready to face reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck in this series. It was no-contest between Smith and Hellebuyck during the regular season – Smith was 5-0 with a .963 and Hellebuyck was 0-5 and .878 as the Oilers won seven of nine games head-to-head.

It’s not a news flash to point out good goaltending isn’t an option in the playoffs. Get it and you’ve got a chance. That’s something Smith has a track record of providing. In 2011 with Tampa Bay, Smith was .958 in three games. In 2012, he was .944 in 16 games for Tippett in Phoenix. In 2019 with Calgary, he was .917 in five games. All told (including the play-in against Chicago), Smith has a 2.33 GAA and .934 save-percentage in 25 playoff games.

Save-percentage and GAA is a baseline. It doesn’t tell the whole story (Smith was as good with Calgary at .917 as he’s ever been) and it guarantees nothing without some help and scoring support. Look no further than the fact Smith is 11-13 career in playoffs, which tells me he hasn’t had enough of it. With what we’ve seen from Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse, and with the Oilers seventh in GF with 183 and GF/PG at 3.27, what the Oilers need is a fighting chance. Smith gives them that.

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“What’s done is done,” said Smith, whose work this season earned him the nod as team nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. “The playoffs are just a new season altogether and a new animal. Whatever we’ve done throughout the regular season is over. We carry some confidence going into the playoffs knowing that we can beat anyone in the North Division. Hopefully, that shows come Game 1.

“It’s about what team is going to play better at this time of the year. It’s something you look forward to as a player and as a professional. You want to play your best games at the most important times of the year and that’s playoff hockey.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Feb 11, 2021; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher (11) looks for a rebound after Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith (41) makes a save during the second period at the Bell Centre.

This team is more talented at the top end with McDavid and Draisaitl, although not nearly as deep, as the team that went to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final against Carolina with Fernando Pisani on a heater, Ryan Smyth spitting out teeth, Ales Hemsky at his best and Chris Pronger leading the way. Different time. Different team. Any comparison is a reach.

That said, when I look back to then, I can’t help but think of Roloson, battling for ice in his crease and taking on shooters like a man possessed with his mask flying off. A different kind of animal who not only stopped pucks but provided energy with the passion he did it with. I find myself wondering if Smith might be able to provide this edition of the Oilers with the same fighting chance and contemplating what they might do with it.

#MISSIONSTANLEY

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First goal playoffs, next up: Mission Stanley. Grab your #MISSIONSTANLEY tee here.

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Previously by Robin Brownlee