WINNIPEG — The only way the Edmonton Oilers were ever going to become more than the Connor McDavid travelling side show was to figure out how to keep the puck out of their own net. That point was driven home with a sledgehammer last season, when McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all had career seasons, yet the Oilers were never a legitimate playoff threat after about mid-February.
They needed a solution, starting in goal.
Then new general manager Ken Holland acquired a 37-year-old Calgary Flames cast off, and paired him with a big Finn who held the mantle of “Most Overpaid Goalie in the NHL.”
“Gulp…” said the fan base.
“Nope,” said 90 per cent of us talking heads who are asked annually if the Oilers have finally put together a playoff team.
Well, nine games into the season the Oilers are 7-1-1, and sit fifth in the league with an average of 2.22 goals allowed per game. Their team saves percentage?
How does .929 sound?
“Their goalie played well. Our goalie played really well,” said Oilers defenceman Oscar Klefbom after a 1-0 shootout loss Sunday night in Winnipeg, the rare double-shutout fashioned by Mike Smith and Connor Hellebuyck. “If we’re going to have success, you’re going to need a goalie who can actually stand on his head sometimes. Tonight we got one point, thanks to Smitty.”
Mikko Koskinen stole a game against Philadelphia last week when he made 49 saves, and in the two ensuing games, he and Smith have combined to allow one goal in 125 minutes of hockey.
The old guy from Calgary was fabulous in Winnipeg, and suddenly, the biggest question mark surrounding this team is beginning to be answered.
“It’s the strength of our team, I think,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse. “And if you knew the two guys who are back there I don’t think you’d be so surprised. How hard they compete. How they prepare for games and practices. Two guys who are hungry to be exceptional each and every night.”
OK, that’s fair. But lots of guys train hard and compete like banshees. And everyone is in shape.
In a game like this one, where Smith only saw 23 shots on net, but likely 10 of them were high quality scoring chances, goaltending is paramount. Yes, the Oilers team defence is better, but Smith was fantastic on the penalty kill, made two beauties in overtime, and simply refused to be the guy who let in the first goal.
(OK — Carl Dahlstrom beat Smith on a wrister midway through the third that was overturned on an offside challenge, but stick with us here.)
On top of it all, Smith and Koskinen are two totally different cats.
Koskinen is a Vantaa man of very few words, as unassuming as a six-foot-seven person could possibly be. Smith is a good Kingston, Ont., boy, with a strong personality and eyes that burn holes in you if he doesn’t like a question.
“Two different personalities, but they have the same ‘Let’s get better’ mentality,” Nurse said. “Yeah, they’re different personality-wise. But their preparation, how they compete, that’s something they have in common.”
McDavid went pointless for the second-straight game and the Oilers ended up with three of four points, another rarely seen occurrence. He and Draisaitl had a pair of two-on-ones in overtime, the kind that have ended many an extra session. But in the end the Jets scored on both of their shootout attempts by Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, while Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid both failed to beat ellebuyck on a perfect night for the Jets goalie.
“We haven’t played in too many like this one tonight,” said Smith. “Not a lot of shots, not a lot of great looks. We just stuck with it. I think that’s been a big staple for this group all year, that whatever’s happened with this group, we’ve found a way to just stick with the game.
“We played a good team on the road and in a tough building here and we found a way to get into overtime and get a point out of it. We’re finding ways to get points different ways but the points are important.”
Said Nurse: “That’s an old fashioned Western Conference muck fest. You get the point, and get outta here.”