NASHVILLE — The race is over, the contest closed.
No bad start down the stretch or ugly giveaway is going to turn back the clock on a competition that quietly ended over the past few weeks.
Forget about age, or Koskinen’s wage. Not only has Smith been given two-thirds of the starts since Jan. 1, he’s given his team an 11-1-4 record since the calendar turned to 2020, and the kind of attitude that was on display when Leon Draisaitl had this to say to a sold-out barn on the in-house, post-game interview Saturday:
“You guys are (expletive) phenomenal!”
Of all the one-year contracts that general manager Ken Holland signed last summer, Smith’s has been the most impactful — and not just because he’s stopping pucks. He’s given a head-shy organization a backbone, showing its young superstars how to carry themselves with some swagger.
“He is a leader and a goalie,” said Dave Tippett, the head coach who talked his GM into this pick-up. “A lot of times a goaltender just goes in there and does his job, but he is one of the leaders in that room and wears his heart on his sleeve.
“I’ve known him since he walked in as a long-haired rookie in Dallas and have had him in three places now. He is ultra-competitive. You see what he can do when he gets in a tough situation like those last two minutes (in a 3-2 win vs. Winnipeg on Saturday). He made some great saves. Credit to him for keeping us in there.”
When you’ve lost as much as this organization has lost over the past 15 years, one of the qualities that falls furthest down the well is confidence. This is sport — there are times when a little self-confidence, a little cockiness, is OK.
Guaranteed, having the best two players on the ice when the puck drops most nights in Draisaitl and Connor McDavid fuels that confidence, but in Smith they have a walking, talking six-foot-four mound of “(expletive) you!”
“Win,” Smith said after the game, cutting us off when we asked about which goaltending statistics really matter. “If you win you’re better than the other goalie that night. If you do that, you’re playing against some pretty good goalies, so… That’s how it works.
“I couldn’t care less about goals against and saves percentage. I want to win.”
He won that game against Winnipeg on Hockey Night in Canada, grabbing a regulation victory in a game where the Jets outshot the Oilers 41-22. He’s lost once in regulation in his last 15 starts, and even though Tippett would never say it, you watch. He’ll continue to use Smith down the stretch twice for every one start he gives to Koskinen, and likely more come playoff time.
“His battle level?” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “You can tell it playing sewer ball (pre-game soccer). He’s a really good athlete, and those extra effort saves, he gets there because he’s so athletic. All he wants to do is compete.”
It rubs off on the rest of the team, in a way that is as unquantifiable as how a fight raises everyone’s emotions, or a Kris Russell shot block gives everyone an extra step.
For years opponents rolled through Edmonton, complimented the young Oilers on their speed and skill, loved the ice in the old building, and walked out of the rink with two points. It became almost enough in this city to have flashy young players with gaudy stats, even if none of them ever played a game in May.
Well, Smith is the opposite of that. He turns 38 on March 22, his kids are running around the rink every day, and he sees a chance here to win a Stanley Cup that has eluded him over a career that began at the 2001 draft.
With no goaltender in the pipeline that’s going to be ready next season, Smith will get another deal in Edmonton this summer. His puck-handling skills save defencemen numerous hits per game, and he’s shown this team how to embrace big games, like the ones they’re playing every second night this month.
“The words that have come into this dressing room lately are ‘ground and pound.’ The standings are so close — every game, the margin for error gets smaller and smaller as you get closer to the playoffs,” Smith said. “These are the games you want to play in.
“I’ve played for a long time, and I’ve played in a lot of meaningless games at this time of year and that’s not fun at all. This is when it’s fun and when you want to play and when you want to play your best.”
Smith was blistering hot in Round 1 for Calgary last spring, but he was unable to stave off Colorado without a modicum of help from his skaters.
He’ll get more help in Edmonton, where he’s become the best big-game goalie since Dwayne Roloson in 2006.
Other than a quick two rounds 2017, that was the last time they had big games in Edmonton.