Oilers’ Smith Should Start in Game 2 But Have Very Short Leash

The Edmonton Oilers dropped Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings in a 4-3 decision on Monday night. It was a tight game, and the Oilers fought from behind multiple times to keep the game close. But a bad mistake by Mike Smith cost them the game as there was too little time left to mount a third comeback.

The Oilers were buzzing at home before the postseason opener with a 14-0-1 record in their past 15 games. But the playoffs are a different obstacle. They weren’t outworked necessarily, but they did come up against a hot goaltender who won the Kings the game. Jonathan Quick was the better goalie in Game 1 and didn’t make mistakes or get caught out of position as Smith did.

Smith will have to either get back on track or take a seat on the bench as the Oilers face a must-win game already in Game 2 at home.

Smith Tries to Do Too Much

As always with Smith, he tries to do too much. He comes out of the net more than any other goaltender in the NHL to play pucks and often at dangerous times. It’s one thing to stop the puck behind the net or go out to stop the puck above the corners to set the puck up for the Oilers’ defencemen if no player is bearing down on him, but he handles the puck in every possible situation that the puck comes near him.

This was a killer in last night’s loss. As he did many times in the game, Smith came out of his net and went behind the goal to stop the puck and handle it as well. With just over five minutes left in the game (after the Oilers had erased their second deficit of the game), Smith shot the puck right up the middle to a Kings player with no Oilers in the vicinity. This didn’t result in a goal as he dove back in the net, but a few seconds later, the puck found its way across the line. It was an unnecessary play at a critical point in the game when the puck should be off the boards for players to handle.

Smith often thinks he is the third defenceman. Sometimes this is a good thing. But he is a high-risk, high-reward goaltender, which isn’t always what you want from your last line of defence. Smith believes he can handle the puck just as seamlessly as a defenceman, and instead of stopping the puck or getting the puck to one of them, he will try and make the play, whether it’s a stretch pass or shooting it off the boards. An actual defenceman can control the puck and make quicker and smarter plays. If they mess up and turn the puck over, they have a goaltender in the net. When Smith does it, nobody is in the net.

Sometimes the way Smith plays pays off, but there are times like Game 1 when it costs the Oilers a close, hard-fought game and deflates the team. I would prefer a more conservative goaltender who chooses to protect the net rather than playing the puck and trusting the defence to make a play out of the zone.

Smith’s Playoff Track Record

Don’t get me wrong. All of the goals were not Smith’s fault. The Oilers’ defence had some breakdowns, but he could have had better positioning. Smith finished the game with 31 saves and made some key stops. That may not be enough, though, as Edmonton is desperately trying to win a playoff game for the first time since the 2020 playoff bubble when they only managed one.

Mike Smith Edmonton Oilers
Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Smith has lost all six of his playoff starts for the Oilers and 10 straight going back to his time with the Calgary Flames. His last postseason victory came in Game 1 of the 2019 Playoffs with the Flames until the Colorado Avalanche won four straight to knock Calgary out.

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The last time Smith performed well in the playoffs was in 2012 when he took the Phoenix Coyotes to the third round. That season was the only one of his career when his team advanced out of the first round with him in net. It was also the last time he played in the playoffs before 2018-19. Despite a long, good career, Smith has just 27 playoff games of experience in his 16-year career, and despite having a save percentage of over .930 in the postseason, his save percentage in Edmonton is just .891.

Oilers Have a Tandem for a Reason

The Oilers run a two-goalie system for a reason. When one gets hot, they go with him. But the other can easily step in and help win games. The team is almost at that crossroads despite that Smith won his final 10 starts of the season. Mikko Koskinen picked up his game at the end of the regular season and has also played well under head coach Jay Woodcroft.

Connor McDavid,Mikko Koskinen
Edmonton Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen celebrates with Connor McDavid (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Koskinen went 27-12-4 this season despite less than ideal numbers. He got hot at times and was able to steal games, but the Oilers also felt confident playing in front of him this season. He no longer allows goals early or on the first shot and won the final two games for the Oilers while being peppered with shots. It may be worth it to give him a chance to at least change things up for the team. The Oilers will not go four straight losses with Smith in net for the second season in a row. Koskinen will be in there at some point if things get worse.

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The Oilers should give Smith one more shot in net in Game 2 to bounce back, but his leash should be very short, meaning if he performs less than spectacular and the Oilers lose, Koskinen gets the nod for Game 3 in Los Angeles. It may be in Smith’s head, but his playoff losing streak can’t seep into this postseason, or the Oilers will have another short one.

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