Edmonton Oilers fans deserve so much better.
They're tired of hearing about how they have two of the best players in the entire world and still can't find any playoff success. They're bored of hearing how much better their rivals are. They're annoyed of being a team that's often on the butt-end of a joke year after year.
They just want to win again.
Don't get me wrong, the Oilers deserve a ton of the flak they receive.
This year simply felt a bit different. The defensive situation, while not fixed, was steadily improved. Scoring depth finally seemed to be a strength of the team. But the biggest question remained in net: could the duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen really keep this team in contention?
Koskinen gave it his best shot early and couldn't figure things out. But Smith, on the other hand? He's been absolutely lights out.
The Oilers started the season with a bit of a tricky goalie situation. Smith was placed on long-term injury reserve just three days into the NHL season, forcing prospect Stuart Skinner into the backup position and bringing over Olivier Rodrique from Austria to fill a spot on the taxi squad. The Oilers lost Anton Forsberg via waivers before snagging Troy Grosenick through the same method shortly after - only to lose him back to Los Angeles in early February before he ever played a game. Add in Dylan Wells as a backup on an emergency basis and the Oilers have had quite a few men prepare for a spot in the crease, only to have Koskinen play 12 of the team's 13 games - racking up a disappointing 5-7-0 record with a 3.52 GAA and .889 save percentage.
Yeah, that whole situation was pretty ugly.
But since Smith's return in early February, the 38-year-old netminder has gone on a 6-0-0 run with two shutouts, a 1.73 GAA and a .944 SP. His .947 save percentage and 4.29 goals-save-above average at 5-on-5 make him a top 10 goaltender in the league right now, and his .909 high-danger save percentage (second) has proven that he's ready for any tough task thrown at him.
“I feel like we’ve done a lot of good things this year to put us in a good spot right now and I don’t want that to slide away because of goaltending,” Smith said following a 3-0 shutout on Thursday over Vancouver.
“It’s a mission I’m on and Mikko played well when I was out. So I think it’s just nice for him to get kind of a break and for me to get in there and feel like I’m playing really well for the team. And obviously, the way we’re playing makes it a lot easier on the goalie too.”
These types of hot runs have always seemed to be a staple of Smith's game. As a rookie in Dallas, Smith started his NHL career with a 5-1 record through his first month of NHL action before finishing the season off with an 8-1-2 run. Then there was that insane run that saw Smith take the Coyotes on an unlikely hot playoff run in 2012, falling to the Los Angeles Kings in the conference final. Add in a spot in the 2018 NHL all-star game and a few magnificent stretches in Calgary and this is starting to feel all the bit familiar for fans of the Kingston, Ont. native.
And now the Oilers are hoping he can turn that energy into another great run in the legacy of the veteran netminder. Smith has simply outplayed his crease counterpart in Koskinen and has deserved the bulk of the starting gigs as of late. The Oilers currently hold a five-game winning streak and an 8-2-0 record over the past 10 games, helping them leap over Winnipeg and Montreal to sit second in the North Division. The Oilers do have the most games played out of any team in the top five, but the team has been the best in the North Division as of late and are riding on a high note - largely due to Mike Smith.
Can the Oilers continue riding Smith towards fruition? That's a lot to expect out of a 38-year-old goaltender, but he has giving the team every opportunity to steal wins right now. Smith's on a one-year pact and this could very well be his last shot at glory - and it seems like anytime people count him out, Smith finds a way to succeed.
Edmonton still has a bulk of the schedule to go, including a three-game homestand against the first-place Maple Leafs. Smith will be relied on to snag a few wins along the way to propel the team into first place.
The Oilers found success in rotating Smith and Koskinen throughout 2019-20. Koskinen had a rough start to the season, playing heavy action after a long layoff and a shortened training camp to get things started. Smith has looked exceptionally better in recent weeks, but, again, he's 38. The Oilers can't overwork him and they need Koskinen to play as he did at points last season.
There's never a dull moment in Smith's career. Whether it's his erratic goaltending style, his willingness to dance with the puck on his stick or his up-and-down nature, performance-wise, Smith is always someone worth keeping an eye on. And with the way he's playing, he's got the Oilers in a spot many predicted they would be. The jury is still out as to whether the Oilers can rely on their crease situation, but you have to love what you're seeing out of the goaltending greybeard right now.