There’s no denying how good Mike Smith has been for the Edmonton Oilers of late. In his last 10 starts, Mike Smith is 9-0-1 with a 1.70 GAA and a .948 save percentage. In his previous three games, he’s posted two shutouts. He’s coming on strong at just the right time and he’s giving the Oilers a chance to win every night. Frankly, he’s a big part of the reason the Oilers are 10-2-1 in their last 13 games and holding onto the second-place spot in the Pacific Division.
That said, simply riding a hot Mike Smith down the stretch would be a mistake.
Smith Needs the Rest
Some may argue (maybe even Smith himself) that the more he plays the better he is. While that may be true, it would serve the Oilers well to resist the temptation to stick exclusively with Smith over the final five games of the season. The only back-to-back games Edmonton has on its calendar to close the campaign is on the 27th and 28th of April as they take on the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. Smith will likely sit one of those games, but he should probably sit before then too.
As hot as Smith has been, he’s also 40 years old. Any professional athlete needs time to rest and recuperate and for Smith, that’s extremely important if the Oilers want an injury-prone netminder to stay as hot as he’s been. Heading into the postseason, it seems clear Smith is the guy. But, one wrong move, one funny shot, or one stretch in the wrong direction, and Smith could be out. It’s happened this season more than once already and (knock on wood), it could happen again.
Koskinen Needs the Starts
While Smith should be commended for an incredible turnaround, it’s important to remember how big a part of the team Mikko Koskinen is. 25-11-4 on the season, he’s been better than most fans give him credit for. So too, it’s almost a virtual guarantee that the Oilers will need him at some point in the playoffs and the last thing the Oilers want is for Koskinen to be coming in completely cold because Smith was playing every regular-season game down the stretch.
A playoff series can change in a hurry. When Smith is on, he’s great. When he’s off, he’s really off and Koskinen will need to be the solution. As the Oilers have already learned in years past, getting down a game or two can be disastrous. If Smith struggles early (he’s done so before) Koskinen needs to step in, and right away. His coming in with confidence is key. He only gets that confidence if he plays a couple of regular-season games and plays well.
There’s an opportunity to make this work without hurting the Oilers in the standings. The playoffs are almost a lock. Second place in the Pacific is now the goal because it gives the Oilers the best first-round matchup. The second the Oilers secure that spot, put Koskinen in. It won’t hurt the Oilers in the standings but it will give Koskinen a chance to be productive and contribute.
Oilers Goaltending Works Best as a Tandem
Riding a hot goalie has worked well for teams in the past and having a netminder on a heater is certainly better than not. That said, the Oilers’ success will come if both goalies are holding up their end of the bargain. The key for head coach Jay Woodcroft is finding a way to get both Smith and Koskinen clicking as the playoffs begin.
What the Oilers don’t need is a feeling in the background that they have to run with one guy because the other is cold or ineffective. That’s the way teams get in trouble if they have one starter and not much else. Smith has been fantastic and he’s earned the right to open the first round. That said, he’s still only a 1A. The Oilers need to ensure 1B is ready to go too.
Under Woodcroft, Koskinen has been as steady as he’s been throughout his tenure with the Oilers. There’s no reason to think that pulling Smith for one or two games will change that.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”