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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

What Was That?

It was Mike Smith who made the big mistake everybody was talking about after the Edmonton Oilers dropped a 4-3 decision to open their first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings, but Smith had company as two months of structure and process went out the window inside a packed Rogers Place Monday.

Likewise, you had plenty of company if you were left scratching your head and wondering WTF Smith was thinking when he tried to clear a puck up the middle from behind his net with just over five minutes remaining in a 3-3 game. Rather than make a safe, smart play – something the Oilers have done with regularity under new coach Jay Woodcroft – Smith tried to make a high-risk, low percentage play.

That, for those who haven’t already played it over and over again in their heads, triggered a panic mode sequence. Smith’s pass was picked off by Alex Iafallo. While Smith made a diving save on the first shot, Sean Derzi’s point shot deflected off Phillip Danault and into the net to make it 4-3. All this when a dump to Evan Bouchard or Duncan Keith in one of the corners was there to be had and would have worked just fine.

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As good as Smith has been in the last month and as fundamentally sound as the Oilers have looked going 26-9-3 with Woodcroft behind the bench, this was unexpected, at least from where I sit. Smith’s mistake was the most blatant of the game, but the Oilers just didn’t look like the team we’ve seen down the stretch with the building buzzing under the glare of the playoff spotlight. A touch of stage fright?

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

May 2, 2022; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) makes a save during warmup against the Los Angeles Kings in game one of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Down 2-0 early, the Oilers played catch-up all game and where even at 3-3 on Leon Draisaitl’s goal when the big mistake by Smith, who is now 0-6 with a 3.27 GAA and .892 saves percentage in playoffs with the Oilers, swung this one.

“I was just trying to make something happen,” Smith said in his post-game availability. “I tried to do too much in a tight game, and it ended up costing us the game. I’m obviously disappointed, but it’s one game and we move on and worry about game two.

“You can’t do anything about it now, it’s over. It didn’t go the way we wanted, but it’s a long series and a long playoff if you want to get where we want to go. Nobody thought we’d win 16 straight, so it’s some adversity in the series but it’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before. I’m sure we’ll deal with it again on the journey, so we’ll move on.”

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It was just a month ago Smith had fans high-fiving when he sent Connor McDavid in alone for the overtime winner against the San Jose Sharks. That’s part of the deal you get with a puck-handling goaltender like Smith. That’s not a free pass, just the reality. This was not the time or place for what we saw from Smith. He knows it better than anybody else does.

“Obviously, Mike would like to have that puck handle back, but there was other stuff on that play too that I think we can handle a little bit better,” said Woodcroft. “He’s done a good job of making big saves for us over time, and we want to make sure we can clean up some of those areas.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

“I think there are areas we can be better,” Woodcroft said. “There are areas we can be better. Like I said, it’s hard to fault our players’ effort. For me, it comes down to execution on some things and trusting what your structure is during certain times. In the end, it was a 3-3 hockey game in the third period. We made one more mistake than they did and it ended up a 4-3 hockey game.”

A bad start. A bad play by Smith. The Oilers, who’ve lost seven straight postseason games dating back to 2020, simply need to get back to the kind of hockey they played over the last month when they hit the ice for Game 2 Wednesday.

The building will be alive. The Kings will be ready to rumble. If this goes 0-2, it doesn’t take a vast intellect to know it’s trouble. We’re not there yet. Give Smith the net and get after it.


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Previously by Robin Brownlee


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