MONTREAL — So, who is the No. 1 goalie in Edmonton, anyhow?
"Is there one?" asks Mike Smith, who starts again Thursday in Montreal, quietly emerging from a personal slump to start all four games on this road trip thus far.
The biggest question facing the Oilers prior to the season has been answered — not emphatically, but at least in a positive way. The Oilers team goals against average (3.11) ranks 17th in the National Hockey League — not great, but a lot better than some feared a Mikko Koskinen-Mike Smith tandem mighty produce.
A bad December — particularly by Smith — drove the numbers up, but the duo has proven that when both are right they can give this team more than enough goaltending to win games.
Smith has taken the nets for now, a very good sign when you consider that Koskinen seems to play better when he has a partner who is capable of sharing the duties. As for Smith, at age 37 he’s getting his head around sharing as well, something that doesn’t meet his personality quite the way it does for Koskinen.
"Early on in my career, you’re trying to find your way. You’re probably playing less than you’d like to," said the veteran Smith. "Over the course of my career I’ve played a lot, too. So having that experience both ways helps mentally. It’s nice to get back in the net, get on a little bit of a roll here. Get some wins, help the team, and get some confidence back."
Head coach Dave Tippett started the season by giving each ‘tender two starts, then giving the other one two starts. That lasted until mid-November, so his team could get used to moving from the puck handler Smith to the more stay-at-home Koskinen.
"If you ask anybody in our dressing room who’s playing goal tonight, it’s not a big concern for them. They think both guys can do the job. We’ve established that," said Tippett, who talks to both goalies all the time, not just the starter.
And it is likely the conversation with the non-starter that is more important.
"One way to look at it is to put themselves in the situation of the other guy. If they’re playing well, they want to get back in the net," he said.
Koskinen’s numbers — a 2.85 GAA and a .912 save percentage — are clearly superior to Smith’s (3.05, .897). But the Oilers saw Koskinen’s game break down at the end of last season when he was forced to play too much, so getting Smith’s form back literally helps both guys.
Traditionally, hockey men have always preferred a clear pecking order between a No. 1 and a backup and the Oilers just don’t have that luxury at the moment. But the game is getting away from that anyhow.
"You look at the schedule and the importance of games now," Tippett said, "I really think it’s turning into a two-goalie league. Especially out West, with the travel we have out there."
It may be, but Smith is an old school guy who is always competing to be the Alpha male. After years as an NHL starter, he’s trying to get his head around the fact he’s reached the point in his career where a split is likely the best he can hope for.
It’s an adjustment.
"Yeah, sometimes," Smith allows. "It’s more challenging mentally than the physical aspect. You just stay as sharp as you can at practice and mentally you try not to get too riled up about it. When you do get a chance to get on a bit of a roll you want to take advantage of that."
It’s all well and good until playoff time, should the Oilers qualify. Then we’ll see if Tippett continues to share the net, or if he goes the traditional route and rides one goalie.
"Teams are trying to preserve both guys, and maybe protect their No. 1 guy more," Smith said. "Give him the best opportunity to be healthy and 100 per cent going into the most important games of the year.
"The way I look at it, it’s a friendly, competitive battle for the net every night. Mikko is a great guy. We’re both trying to achieve the same thing and we’re working in the same direction. Both guys are playing important roles here this year and you want to be the guy in there when it matters most."
What does the coach have planned for the post-season, if the Oilers are in?
"To be determined," Tippett said with a smile.