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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Different This Time

So, Mike Smith is injured and the reality is we don’t know when he’ll be ready to take over the crease again for the Edmonton Oilers. That’s meant backup Mikko Koskinen has played a lot more than he normally would, with third-stringer Stuart Skinner called up from AHL Bakersfield to cheerlead from the bench.

If that sounds strikingly similar to last season — when Smith went down with an injury, Koskinen was forced to take over the crease for 12 of the first 13 games and Skinner got a nice bump in pay for sitting on the bench in The Show rather than stopping pucks down in Bake-O – it is, but there are plenty of differences this time, and that’s good news for the Oilers.

Now, I’m not going to try to blow smoke up your backsides by suggesting Smith being out since partway through the third game of the season is a good thing. It’s not, but the circumstances this time, as the Oilers take a 9-2-0 record in against the Boston Bruins in the second game of a five-game road swing with Koskinen in the cage, make this situation more “less than ideal” than “holy crap, now what?” First the bad news:

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“It’s a concern, for sure, because it looks like he takes some steps ahead and goes out and works a little bit, and then has taken another step back,” coach Dave Tippett said this morning about Smith returning to Edmonton Wednesday.

 “So, I think it’s certainly a concern. He went through the last couple of days and near the end of practice, he kind of tweaked something, so he decided to go back, and I think they’re going to do some more imaging of it today (Thursday) and we’ll get a better read on it at home.”

THIS TIME AROUND

Oct 27, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) makes a save during warmups before a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The differences this time, starting with Koskinen, are many. Without any pre-season preparation, with his family back in Finland and carrying a workload he couldn’t handle, the start of last season was an a nightmare for Koskinen. That’s not a cry-for-Koskinen plea because he’s paid handsomely to stop pucks and didn’t do a great job of it, but it’s the reality of his situation.

With his family in Edmonton and a schedule that’s allowed for more time between games, Koskinen hasn’t been overworked like he was a year ago. Koskinen’s share of this 9-2-0 start going into Beantown is 7-1-0 with a .920 saves percentage since Smith went down. Through 11 games last season, the Oilers were 5-6-0. 

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The favorable schedule continues. After this back-to-back in Boston today and Buffalo Friday, where Skinner will start, the Oilers have a day off before facing St. Louis Sunday. They have days off between games against Winnipeg Tuesday and at home Thursday and then another off-day before taking on Chicago Saturday.

It hasn’t hurt that Skinner looked very good, in just his second NHL start, with 35 saves against Detroit to open the trip despite a 4-2 loss. After a solid pre-season, Skinner looked way sharper and more composed than in his only previous start, last Jan. 31 against Ottawa – he won but gave up five goals on 38 shots. Simply put, if Smith’s injury lingers, Skinner looks to be a better option to spell off Koskinen than he was a year ago.

“Mental toughness,” Tippett said of how Koskinen has bounced back this season. “Last year he was very open about his challenges, without his family, not playing as well as he’d like. He came back with a real purpose, a veteran guy who understands his role on our team. He came back with a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to show people he was still a good player. He’s doing that right now.”

Yes, he is, and that’s not something I would have bet one thin dime on when last season ended. This is not that.

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Previously by Robin Brownlee