Oilers Using Weaker Opponents to Allow Smith to Find His Game

The Edmonton Oilers have now strung together their third five-game win streak since Jay Woodcroft took over as head coach and have taken the first two games of a three-game California road trip. Those wins came over the Anaheim Ducks by a score of 6-1 and the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in overtime.

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Those two teams were the weaker of the three on this trip but the Oilers have been great in those games to allow the team to gain confidence on the road again as well as help out the goaltenders. Sure, there are still lapses in their game defensively, more so from the defencemen, but Mike Smith has stood on his head and hopefully turned his game around just in time for when games matter the most (from ‘Player grades: Edmonton Oilers lit up by Flames for nine goals in putrid defensive effort’, Edmonton Journal, March 27, 2022).

Smith Has Been Excellent in Past 2 Starts

Prior to his last two starts, Smith allowed nine goals in a game and a half to the Calgary Flames and the St. Louis Blues. He played in only half of the game against the Flames and held on in the win over the Blues despite struggling. On most nights he has looked slower and has been noticeably out of position on certain plays, resulting in goals or very close chances.

Getting to his last two starts, he has saved 62 of 64 shots for a save percentage of .969. He also made a big stop at the beginning of overtime and sent Connor McDavid in alone on a breakaway to win the game. His puck-handling has never been in question even though he messes up here and there, but that is a point you can give a lot of credit to Smith in helping the Oilers earn.

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

He has built his save percentage up to over .900 (.901) for the first time since before his fifth start of the season and he has a positive win/loss record for the first time since before his sixth start. Playing non-playoff teams isn’t exactly a great test to see if the Oilers’ goaltending is going to stand up against the competition in the postseason, but Smith is an NHL goalie and a win against another NHL team in the manner he’s done so can really boost the confidence.

Stepping Up at Key Time Down the Stretch

The Oilers have 11 games left on the schedule and currently sit second place in their division after they jumped the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers are one point ahead of the Kings and sit six points back of the Flames, which could be within reach. Down the stretch, the Oilers play the Kings tonight one final time during the regular season and the only team that could kick them out of a playoff spot once, the Vegas Golden Knights.

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Two of the Oilers’ last five wins have come against playoff teams while all three of their previous losses have come against teams set to qualify for the postseason as well. They have been taking advantage of weaker teams, which is what every good team should be able to handle, but they will have to up the compete level against better teams to be considered a real competitor come playoff time.

The Oilers have seven remaining games against a team currently holding a playoff spot, and eight depending on if the Golden Knights jump ahead of the Dallas Stars or fall back out of a spot. No game should come easy and the tougher opponents will allow the team to gauge where they are at and what needs to be worked on before the puck drops in the first round.

What Do the Oilers Do in Net Come Playoffs?

The Oilers could find themselves making the tough choice come playoff time as they have two mediocre goaltenders who are fighting for that No. 1 job. Right now Smith has the upper hand with his performances in the past two games, but the Oilers will need Mikko Koskinen to also be on his game in case the play of Smith falters like it has throughout the season.

Neither goaltender has been consistent for any significant stretch this season and that has shown with the record and ups and downs the team has endured throughout 2021-22. As I’ve mentioned, there are still 11 games to go and the Oilers seem to be riding the hot hand in goal, which is the best course of action.

Breaking down the last month or two, Koskinen has allowed two or fewer goals in two of his previous 10 starts, but four of eight before that. He also has the more impressive record at 25-10-3 (from ‘OILERS NOTES: Koskinen quietly has more wins than Hellebuyck this season’, Edmonton Sun, March 13, 2022). The problem is his save percentage is .902 while Smith’s is .901. Neither of those are even acceptable for a backup goaltender, nevermind a playoff-bound team hoping to make it out of the first round.

Mikko Koskinen Edmonton Oilers
Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since returning from injury one day short of exactly two months ago, Smith has made 16 appearances and allowed two or fewer goals in seven of those games. To line things up with the stats I pulled for Koskinen, Smith has allowed two or fewer goals in five of the past 10 games.

The Oilers are likely going to make the playoffs thanks to their offence this season. The goaltending has been too inconsistent to give much credit to, but has won them games at times. Playoffs are a whole new battleground as the Montreal Canadiens showed everyone last season; any team can get hot and go on a run. Carey Price was a key to that success and it doesn’t matter if it’s Smith or Koskinen, the Oilers don’t have a clear No. 1 goalie and either one getting hot at the right time will do just fine.

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