If you told Edmonton Oilers fans before the beginning of the 2021-22 NHL season that No. 1 goaltender Mike Smith would be injured in the team’s third game, there would have been widespread panic.
And if at the time of that injury you told said fans that Smith was sidelined indefinitely, said panic would have spread even wider.
And yet, here we are, 20 games into the season, six weeks since the injury and with no sign of Smith returning soon, and there is nary a hint of panic in Oil Country. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The Oilers boast a 15-5-0 record, are first in the Western Conference, and have the second-most wins through 20 games in franchise history. And it’s thanks in no small part to the unlikely duo of goalies Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner.
Between them, the veteran Finn and promising Canadian have played every minute in net for the Oilers from when Smith left the second period against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 19 and was placed on injured reserve a day later. Koskinen started Edmonton’s next seven games but has since split duties with Skinner in the last 10 games.
Combined, they are 13-5-0 with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.75 and save percentage (SV%) of .917, numbers that are right on par with the league averages of 2.74 GAA and .913 SV% and well above what anyone might have expected.
Koskinen, 33, is 11-2-0 with a 2.89 GAA and .912 SV%. Both figures are significant improvements from 2020-21 (3.17 GAA, .899 SV%) and better than his career average coming into this season (2.97 GAA, .907 SV%).
The 23-year-old Skinner, who’s 2-3-0 with a 2.44 GAA and a .928 SV%, is quickly proving himself more than capable of playing at the NHL level. Prior to making his season debut against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 9, his resume consisted of just one NHL game, on Jan. 31, 2021, when he stopped 33 of 38 shots in Edmonton’s 8-5 win over the Ottawa Senators.
Koskinen & Skinner Picking Each Other Up
The knock on Koskinen has always been his lack of inconsistency—an inability to put together a sustained stretch of quality starts. And while he’s been better overall this season, Koskinen still hasn’t gone more than a handful of games without a dud. That’s where Skinner has come in.
Over his first seven appearances, Koskinen went 6-1 with a 2.18 GAA and a .934 SV%. But after allowing four goals in two periods against the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 16, the third time in four starts that he had given up at least four goals, Koskinen got the hook.
Skinner had a strong third period in relief of Koskinen and was even better the next two games: he stopped 46 shots in a 2-1 shootout win over Winnipeg on Nov. 18 and made 29 saves in a 5-2 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 20.
That led to a third straight start for Skinner, against the Dallas Stars on Nov. 23, when he gave up a season-high four goals in taking the loss. Oilers coach Dave Tippet then turned back to Koskinen, who has responded by backstopping Edmonton to consecutive road wins, 5-3 against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 24 and 3-2 over the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 27.
Oilers Again Relying on Two Goalies to Get it Done
The ad-hoc approach is working so far for Edmonton, which is yet to lose consecutive games this season. Of course, goaltending by committee is nothing new for the Oilers, who have almost evenly split the total starts between two goalies since Koskinen joined the team for the 2018-19 season. The last couple of seasons, it’s been the tag-team of Smith and Koskinen, and that was expected to be the case again in 2021-22 before Smith was hurt and Skinner was recalled from the American Hockey League.
in 2019-20, when Smith started 37 games and Koskinen started 34, they combined to go 37-25-9 with a 2.88 GAA and a .910 SV%. Last season, Smith started 30 games and Koskinen started 25, combining to go 34-19-2, with a 2.69 GAA and a .912 SV%.
The numbers thus far for Koskinen/Skinner (13-5, 2.75 GAA, .917 SV%) do not compare unfavourably to that of Koskinen/Smith. This despite playing behind a revamped blue line that has had to rely heavily on younger, lesser experienced defencemen of late thanks to a rash of injuries that has sidelined minute-crunching veterans Duncan Keith and Darnell Nurse, plus Slater Koekkoek.
Smith’s Return Remains a Bit of a Mystery
Not a lot has been clear about the nature of Smith’s injury, which seems to have occurred when Oilers teammate Devin Shore fell on his leg while the 39-year-old goalie was covering the puck during a scrum at the side of the net against Anaheim.
He was originally set to return in the second week of November when he traveled with the Oilers at the start of a five-game road trip before suffering a “setback” and being sent back to Edmonton. A week later, on Nov. 19, Smith was placed on long-term injured reserve, and the most recent reports suggest he could be back in early-mid December, although there have been no further updates for a week now.
Given the opaqueness around Smith’s situation, it’s difficult to believe he’ll be back until he actually skates out for a game and takes his position between the pipes. But one thing Edmonton is believing more and more in is the Oilers continuing to thrive with the tandem of Koskinen and Skinner.
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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.