Mike Smith’s struggles continue as Oilers keep free-falling

The Penguins managed to keep the Oilers’ big guns off the board, with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid going pointless, as they won 5-2 in Edmonton.

“As of late, I haven’t made enough of the Grade-A saves.” — Mike Smith, pregame.

EDMONTON — Deep in his crease and deep into his career, Mike Smith is now officially in a deep hole.

Playing behind an Edmonton Oilers team that isn’t what you’d call air-tight defensively, Smith gave up a softie early on and simply failed to give his team the big save it needed in a 5-2 loss.

“You make one of those breakaway saves, and it’s probably a different game,” sighed Smith, who was beaten on both Pittsburgh breakaways on the night.

Now, clearly, giving up breakaways belies a team that makes mental mistakes, and the first of the two clearly belonged to Oscar Klefbom, who failed to heed calls from the bench that Joseph Blandisi was coming out of the penalty box.

But teams that win get big saves. Teams that lose — and Edmonton has now lost six of seven — talk about all the big saves they didn’t get.

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“You’d like to get a save out of one of those, but they were Grade-A chances,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “Other than the first one.”

Leon Draisaitl went minus-4, the 13th consecutive game he has not been a plus player. He has gone minus-18 in that span.

“In the last couple of weeks, he hasn’t been nearly as good as he was earlier in the year,” admitted Tippett. “He is one of those guys that when we get behind in the game, he gets chasing the game and trying to do whatever he can to get us back in the game. But that leads to a lot of chances against.”

Pittsburgh, playing without Sidney Crosby, Justin Schultz, Patric Hornqvist and Brian Dumoulin, handled a healthy Oilers roster with relative ease. Tristan Jarry was far better in goal than Smith, and the skaters were quicker, played the game faster, and with far more attention to detail than the loose Oilers.

It’s going sideways in Edmonton, and now the red-hot Montreal Canadiens are in for a 5 p.m. MT start on Saturday. Yikes!

“It’s not easy to play a team like Pittsburgh where you have to score three goals in the third period,” Klefbom said. “You’re not giving yourself a chance.”

With the team in free-fall, it is likely time to play Mikko Koskinen three out of every four games, and see if he can handle the load. We would expect that Smith has played his final game in 2019, the way the games are spaced out.

After that, it’s up to the veteran to find his game. Right now, his save percentage is .893 — a few points lower than the .898 he posted in Calgary last year.

“You’ve got to makes saves. You’ve got to make more saves,” Smith repeated. “At important times in games we’re either making too many mistakes, and they can’t get covered up for. Or, myself, I can’t get a big save at the right time in the game. You make one of those breakaway saves, and it’s probably a different game.”

The last time these two teams met, Smith made 51 saves in a 2-1 overtime win. Since that game in Pittsburgh, however, Smith is 2-5 with a ghastly save percentage of .854. The Oilers aren’t exactly the 1995 New Jersey Devils defensively, but Smith’s game has fallen off a cliff.

“You can only do so much,” said Smith, 37. “The numbers impact the way you assess a goalie, from the outside looking in. But you only control what you can control as a goalie. You can’t control what’s going on in front of you, whether it’s deflections or breakaways, power plays, penalty kills.

“The last couple of games I feel like I’ve played pretty well. I just haven’t made those big saves at important times in games. I feel like I’m not letting in soft ones. It’s the important ones, the big saves where it’s a higher (pedigree) chance? You need to make more of those.”

In a 3-2 league, this is the sixth time in eight games the Oilers have allowed four or more goals on home ice. That is in part due to lacklustre goaltending, but more so, defensive mistakes made by a loose team.

It needs to get fixed, or another year outside the playoffs awaits.

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