“I’m here to win.”
— Mike Smith.
PITTSBURGH — As a franchise, when you’ve had the football pulled away from you as many times as the Edmonton Oilers have, you come to believe that Lucy is lurking around the corner of every winning streak.
The floor has fallen in a lot of times in their town, and it’s only human nature when a negative past lingers through a positive present — loitering in the back of your mind the way the Oilers hung around here in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.
That’s where an Alpha male like Mike Smith is the right guy for this roster, standing back in Edmonton’s crease and catching point shots with a swagger that says, "Get that weak s— outta here!"
Smith stomped into the Oilers’ history books by stopping 51 shots, Leon Draisaitl scored in overtime once again, and the Edmonton Oilers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 — the first time in Connor McDavid’s career that his Oilers have beaten Sidney Crosby’s Penguins.
Smith, the best player on a penalty kill that was five-for-five, refused to let this one go the other way, the way so many have against Pittsburgh over the years.
"He’s got swagger, I’ll say that," said head coach Dave Tippett, who knew this summer that injecting a little bit of attitude would help his dressing room. "It’s just the way he plays — he’s engaged in the game all the time. He is a leader. He comes to the bench and he’s barking at guys on timeouts…
"He is giving us a presence in there that’s helped us win some games," said Tippett. "In overtime he had a hit a pass and a few saves… It’s like a Gordie Howe hat trick for a goalie."
Clearly, none of it matters if Smith doesn’t stop enough pucks, and he is doing that. Smith’s saves percentage jumped from .919 to .931 on Saturday, so he walks the walk.
"He’s a big guy and he’s got that confidence about him. That gives us confidence, from the back end up," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who went 60 per cent in the circle and had five shots on net. "He’s a veteran guy who’s been around a long time. Guys like him and (James) Nealer, they bring a fresh, positive attitude. Smitty played out of his mind for us tonight."
The six-foot-four Smith is a giant on skates, a shaggy 37-year-old with four kids who drafted out of the Kingston Frontenacs when McDavid was a four-year-old. Nearing the end of a 14-year NHL career that has given Smith just three playoff appearances, he sees what’s around him here in Edmonton — not a Cup contender yet, but a team that is a few attainable parts away from being one.
Smith is the kind of personality that won’t sit there and watch anything cut into his chance of perhaps making this final stop his most successful one. He doesn’t have much career left to waste, and he’s grabbing the reins of this culture change in Edmonton with both hands.
"As you get older in your career, you realize what kind of person and player you need to be to help a group out," Smith said. "This team hasn’t had success in the last bunch of years, so being brought in and being an older guy, you owe it to younger players to lead by example. Not only in games but in practice, and on and off the ice.
"I’m a competitive guy, and hopefully that doesn’t rub guys the wrong way. I’m here to win," he declared. "That’s the main thing for me and this team. Whatever I need to do to be a good leader and a good role model, I’m gonna do it."
The last time Smith saw these Penguins, they were lighting him up for six in that fabled 9-1 loss at the Saddledome last October, when he was a Calgary Flame. "Thanks for reminding me," he smiled. "This is a lot better memory coming out of a game like this."
Smith’s new team has been pining for some support scoring, and in a game where everyone came to see No. 97 vs. No. 87, they shuffled out into a sunny Pittsburgh afternoon asking themselves, "Who was that No. 12 for Edmonton?"
Colby Cave, called up only the previous day from Bakersfield, went on a solo rush around defenceman Marcus Pettersson and deposited a goal behind Matt Murray that McDavid would have been proud of. Brian Dumoulin’s shorty tied the game before Draisaitl ended a spectacular overtime with a classic power forward rush, roofing one behind Matt Murray.
Cave, a rancher’s son from Battleford, Sask., became Tippett’s go-to centreman, going 10-6 in the circle, often versus Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. A fringe NHLer thus far in his career, let’s hope he saves the video of this one.
"He was a really good player for us today," stressed Tippett.
So was the big guy in goal, and the Oilers join Washington as the NHL’s only 10-game winners.
So far, the football is still on the tee.