Oilers playoff fate now lands on shoulders of Mike Smith

Feb 8 2022, 11:05 pm

The fate of the Edmonton Oilers could come down to Mike Smith. 

Smith, set for his first start in nine games because of a thumb injury after previously missing 26 games earlier in the season with a lower-body injury, remains the best option within the organization to backstop the inconsistent squad to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

And that’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on which side of the Smith debate you land on.¬†

“I think as a goalie and someone that plays quite a bit, when things are going well, it’s kind of easy to take your time and let it happen, and the guys were humming along there pretty good,” Smith told reporters Monday. Obviously, you want to be back, but you want to make sure you’re healthy. It’s a lot easier to be on the sidelines when things are going well.

“Obviously on the other spectrum of that, it’s hard to watch and not be able to help, and see guys go through a tough stretch like that and not be in there battling with them. It’s just part of the ebbs and flows of the season. Teams are going to go through it. I think we will be stronger because of it. I think you’ve seen a different team as of late.

“Hopefully we can keep that going out of the break here.”

Smith’s numbers this season aren’t all that encouraging. The soon-to-be 40-year-old stopper has a 3.76 goals-against average and .898 save percentage this season.

To be fair, the sample size is small.¬†He’s only had six starts to this point.¬†

And if Smith can return to form to provide the .923 save percentage he gave the club in 32 appearances last year, the Oilers will certainly see a bump in the standings. 

“He’s a real presence in our room, a great leader,” Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “He’s someone on our team that everyone really can lean on because he’s been around for so long and has seen the ups and down of a season, the ups and downs of months within the year. It’s been great to have him around.¬†

“He adds a level of leadership and competes on the ice.”

Edmonton is three points back of the Calgary Flames for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference, each side playing an equal 42 games.

By points percentage, the Oilers are already in, holding down that second spot by the slimmest of margins over Pacific Division foe Anaheim Ducks. 

A six-game point streak, featuring a 5-0-1 record, has certainly helped that — especially after a 2-11-2 run that saw Edmonton sink to the depths of the Pacific.

But a lot of that was on goaltending. 

And even the harshest of critics would agree that a determined, healthy Smith will help. 

Health being the key.

“We’d like to see him stay healthy without a question,” Edmonton coach Dave Tippett said this morning. “That’s a big factor for it. He’s ready to go. He was ready last week. We decided to give him a break to get through it.

“I’m hoping for him, he comes in like last year, [when] he missed a bit of time and the second half was really strong. That’s what we’re hoping for out of him.”

They could very well get it. 

The Oilers, continually linked on the trade market to external options between the pipes, would be greatly helped to finding an internal solution to goaltending woes that extend to an inconsistent Mikko Koskinen — who now finds himself in COVID-19 protocol — and Stuart Skinner, who might be best served at this stage ripening in the American Hockey League with the Bakersfield Condors.¬†

“Smitty obviously is a great goaltender, first and foremost,” Nurse said. “On top of that, he brings a lot of life to the room, a lot of compete to the ice. Guys really feed off it. We’re happy to have him back.

Last season, Smith was fourth in the NHL among goalies with 25 or more games with 14.4 goals saved above expected, according to MoneyPuck. His save percentage above expected (0.009) was third-best, too. 

Simply put, he outplayed the team in front of him. 

If Smith is able to do that again, it’ll not only lead to some comfortable seating within the playoff picture, but a potential run, too.¬†

First, he has to stay healthy.

“It’s been difficult for sure. I’m not going to lie,” Smith said. “Just with the scheduling and time off and being hurt and being away from the team, it’s obviously a frustrating part about being an athlete. No one ever wants to be on the sidelines, especially when you come back and play a couple games and you’re back on the shelf again.

“It’s not been fun to be hurt and be out. In the same sense, I feel like I still have a lot to give. The first injury was something that had been there for quite some time and just got away from me a little bit, and obviously with the thumb it’s just a freak thing that never really happened before to me.¬†

“I’m not going to dwell on it now. I’m going to look to the future.”

Aaron VickersAaron Vickers

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