Here’s the first thing you need to know.
The Edmonton Oilers players and coaches know better than you do that Mike Smith was awful in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss in Tampa Bay. They are acutely aware that, with some goaltending, they would have been boarding the plane for Florida with at least one, and likely two, points under their belt.
They also know that the weakest spot on their team — their crease — is going to kill their chances of having any success at all, if GM Ken Holland cannot ride to the rescue with some kind of trade.
A Smith-Mikko Koskinen tandem means a long summer at the lake. And as tasty a prospect as Stuart Skinner is, no one thinks they can ride him on a long playoff run. Not yet.
And Holland? He has been fruitlessly shopping for a Grade A goalie for two years. He knows it — don’t kid yourself.
It is more than fair to call Holland out for collecting a $5-million paycheck and not being able to figure out how to fix this problem. But don’t for a minute suggest he does not know a problem exists, and that it is fatal.
He knows it. They know it. We all know it.
Smith stunk Wednesday and the Oilers lost. It’s a clever plot twist on “Koskinen stunk and the Oilers lost,” but the endings, you may have noticed, are similar.
“He made some saves for us as well,” said a backpedalling head coach Jay Woodcroft, faced with the question about Smith.
That’s all the coach could muster. “He made some saves as well.”
So it wasn’t 23-3. Only 5-3.
That’s a positive.
It’s a shame, really.
The Oilers, a team trying to prove they can play with the big boys, walk into Tampa and limit the Lightning to 23 shots on goal. That is the exact recipe for how this Edmonton team needs to play, and what it is they have to master to go from being a good regular season team to a playoff contender.
Unfortunately, Mike Smith gives them an .800 save percentage in the game — allowing four goals on a night when the expected goals were 1.83 — and with an empty netter, the Oilers lose 5-3.
It is arguable who had the better set of skaters on this night. I would suggest that Edmonton did.
It is not even a conversation, however, who had the better goaltending.
Too deep in his net, and the polar opposite of those goalies who display “an economy of movement,” Mike Smith is all over the place — except where the puck is. There is no “quiet” to his game. Instead, only a blur of stabbing blockers, flailing torsos, and a glove hand that looks like it’s trying to put out a campfire.
Goaltending cost the Oilers another hockey game, on a night where a win would have gone a long, long way to allowing the Oilers to believe they can play with a Stanley Cup champion.
“I liked parts of our game,” said captain Connor McDavid, accurately.
It’s not fair to ask McDavid to comment on the goaltending. And truth be told, we were not in Tampa to ask our own questions.
“It’s just details, right? It’s just little things. Against a team like that every play matters,” reasoned McDavid. “They take advantage of what you give them and we just gave them just a little too much.”
One more save and the Oilers would have been in overtime, with a puncher’s chance. Leon Draisaitl hits a post with a minute to play, or they’re walking out with at least a point, focused on all that is right rather than all that is wrong between the pipes.
“We’re coming in to face the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs and give up 23 shots on net,” said Woodcroft. “There were some weird goals, one we kicked into our own net. A shorthanded or penalty kill goal against in the last few seconds… Are there some things that we can do better? Yeah, I think there are some things we can do better. But in terms of the compete level of our team, coming into a tough environment, there were some real good signs in our team game tonight.”
He is absolutely correct. Everything was positive.
Except the big thing.
Yesterday it’s Koskinen. Today it’s Smith. Tomorrow it will be one — or both — but the problem will still be The Problem.
“I think (Smith) tried to battle through some things and he, you know, he made some saves for us as well,” offered the coach. “We had a chance to win that game. Like I said, we gave up 23 shots on net. That’s a good thing. I think.”
Don’t bore me with the details on how each puck slides past Smith. It’s a volume conversation, and not about quality control.
Poor net-front coverage. Deflections. Kicked in by an Oiler. Shots through a screen.
Here are the cold, hard facts: Smith’s saves percentage this season is .891. Eight of the past 29 shots have eluded him. Eleven of the last 59. His record this season is 5-6, with 32 of Edmonton’s 51 games spent on the injured list.
When healthy, maybe he can play. But at age 39, Smith will never be healthy enough for long enough to be a dependable starter, ever again.
There’s a month before the NHL Trade Deadline.
Ken Holland has a team that could win a playoff series. Perhaps even two.
But without a goalie upgrade, forget about anyone else believing in the Edmonton Oilers.
This team won’t even believe in itself.