The Edmonton Oilers’ victory Friday (Nov. 5) over the New York Rangers will go down in team lore. On the night that many of the franchise greats were in attendance to see Hall-of-Fame defenceman Kevin Lowe’s No. 4 raised to the Rogers Place rafters, the Oilers rallied from deficits of 1-0, 4-1 and 5-4 before winning in overtime to run their record to 9-1, the best 10-game start in team history.
The epic comeback, the record book re-writing, a preposterous Connor McDavid goal that is the best of this year and his career, as well all the lustre surrounding the Lowe ceremony served to paper over a bad outing from goaltender Mikko Koskinen, his second poor performance in the last five games.
Koskinen saved just 20 of the Rangers’ 25 shots, and at least a couple of the five goals he allowed were objectively suspect by NHL goaltending standards. He gave up three goals over a 4:04 span early in the second period that turned a 1-1 game into a 4-1 lead for the Rangers. Then, after the Oilers fought all the way back to even things up at 4-4, Koskinen was beaten on a shot he needed to stop, once again putting his team behind the eight ball, down 5-4 with less than 13 minutes to play.
If this was 90 percent of the teams in the NHL, Koskinen would have taken the loss and his struggles would have been the focus of post-game chatter. But these Oilers are so explosive that on some nights they can outscore their goalie’s problems, no matter how egregious.
Koskinen Off To Strong Start
Overall, Koskinen has played reasonably well for the Oilers in the early going this season, compiling a 7-1 record with a 2.54 goals-against average (GAA) and .920 save percentage (SV%). With Mike Smith on injured reserve since suffering a lower-body injury in Edmonton’s third game of 2021-22, Koskinen has been asked to play more than expected, and subsequently performed at a level higher than most expected.
Koskinen was simply not good in Edmonton’s only defeat — 5-3 at home against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 27 — in which the Oilers were arguably the better team and could have won with better goaltending. However, in his other five starts prior to Friday, he allowed two or fewer goals four times, making big saves at key moments that allowed the Oilers to win each of those games.
Tippett Showing Faith in Koskinen
Notably, Oilers coach Dave Tippett has elected not to relieve Koskinen of his duties against either the Flyers or Rangers, even though in both cases his game was clearly was not up to par from the outset, and there was enough time left in the game that a goalie switch could spark a comeback. In the loss to Philly, Edmonton trailed 3-2 after the first period. On Friday, it was 4-1 for the Rangers before the game had reached its midpoint. Granted, of course, the team rallied to beat New York, anyway, and therein lies the upshot.
Clearly, Tippett is looking to build confidence in Koskinen, demonstrating belief and trust in the netiminder by leaving him in the game and giving him opportunity to find his form. This is a huge boost for a goalie that has frequently been raked over the coals by outside observers over the course of his three-plus years in Edmonton.
Koskinen’s improved play so far thus season can perhaps be attributed to the Finnish netminder being in a much better place personally, now that he has been reunited with his family after being separated from them during the 2020-21 season because of the global pandemic. Tippett doesn’t want to risk negatively impacting Koskinen’s improved outlook and mindset.
Koskinen is Not Being Overplayed
Koskinen has now started Edmonton’s last seven games and is the only Oilers goalie to step between the pipes over the team’s last 451:19 of game action dating back to when Smith was hurt against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 19. His backup Stuart Skinner, who has played only one NHL game in his young career, is yet to see the ice since being recalled from the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors following Smith’s injury.
In the wake of his struggles against New York, there are suggestions that Koskinen may be a bit overworked. Much of this stems from his performance last season, which Smith also began on injured reserve. Koskinen played 12 of Edmonton’s first 13 games, including 10 straight over a course of 18 days, going just 5-7 with a 3.55 GAA and .889 SV%.
The difference with the start of last season is that Koskinen was playing virtually every other day, only twice getting more than one day off between games over those first 13 contests. So far this season, he’s had an average of a day and a half off between starts, with just one back-to-back, and Edmonton won’t play next until Tuesday (Nov. 9), against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena. Even he would surely agree that if that’s too taxing of a pace, then you’re not up to par.
Koskinen Remains the Same
But ultimately, what Friday proved is — to paraphrase Dennis Green — that Koskinen is who we thought he was. He can play well for a few games, but he can’t string together a lengthy stretch without an off night. Consistency has never been Koskinen’s bag, and at age 33, that’s not going to change. Every time he reels off a few good outings — as he has the last couple weeks, to make fans think that maybe, just maybe, he’s found that rhythm — he follows it up with a performance like Friday.
So, even though he is playing better this season and deserves a lot of praise for doing so, this latest blip demonstrates again what everyone has known all along: the tandem of Koskinen and Smith is not good enough to get the Oilers where they want to be. Sure, the team could win a playoff series or two, but they’re likely not winning a championship with said duo.
Maybe that’s ok for now. Koskinen is in the final year of his contract, and the Oilers could just let it ride this season and pursue another goalie next summer once he is off the books. But if they have visions of hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug in 2022, general manager Ken Holland will have to look at making a move before the tradeline. Fortunately for Edmonton, that’s still months away.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.