Mike Smith has always been the type of teammate players love to have. His fighting spirit and shaggy hair are easy things to latch onto. The way he’s played since coming back to the Edmonton Oilers fold, though, Smith could become the biggest wet blanket in the dressing room and the boys would still be thrilled to have him around.
On Friday, the 38-year-old stopper started his fifth game since returning from an undisclosed injury, backstopping the Oilers to a 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames. Though Smith was forced to make just 20 saves, a few of them were important stops near the end of the first period when the Oilers were trying to take a 1-0 road lead into the first intermission. Twenty-four hours later, Edmonton completed a Battle of Alberta weekend sweep on home ice, with Mikko Koskinen benefiting from an offensive explosion that saw the Oilers drub Calgary 7-1.
With these two clubs headed in opposite directions at the moment, it’s worth recalling Calgary won the first provincial showdown before the season even began when it signed goalie Jacob Markstrom as an unrestricted free agent. The Oilers were chasing Markstrom, too, but ultimately lost out and had to run back a less-than-inspiring duo of Smith and Koskinen.
When Smith returned from injury on Feb. 8, poor goaltending was threatening to completely ruin Edmonton’s season. Through 13 contests, the Oilers had a 5-on-5 save percentage of .894, worse than all but two teams in the league. Koskinen played the bulk of those contests and his pre-Smith save percentage was .889.
Ever since “Smitty” stepped back into the blue paint, though, it’s been a completely different story in the crease. Edmonton’s 5-on-5 save percentage is .951 during that stretch, better than everyone in the league save the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Smith’s four wins in that period are tied for tops in the league and his .940 save percentage is the third-best mark among tenders with at least two starts behind Jonathan Quick (.960) and — wait for it — Koskinen’s .949 mark.
For what it’s worth, there’s no appreciable change in the way the Oilers are skating in front of the masked men now versus in the early stages of the season. Edmonton ranks a pedestrian 19th in the league in terms of high-danger scoring chances for percentage (49.18) since Smith has come back and was actually a hair better (51.15 per cent) prior to his return.
Smith, of course, has represented both Southern and Northern Alberta in this rivalry. After spending two years in Calgary, he jumped to the Oilers as a free agent in the summer of 2019. And while it’s hard to expect he’ll continue to post the brick-wall numbers he has so far, it’s worth noting that in the 2020 portion of last year’s calendar, Smith went 12-3-1 with a respectable .911 save percentage for a team that was tracking a post-season berth.
Neither Smith nor Koskinen played well in the bubble, leading to Edmonton’s pursuit of Markstrom in the off-season. When they lost out to Calgary, the Oilers turned back to Smith on a one-year contract that counts for $1.5 million against the salary cap.
For all their star power, the Oilers basically surrender as many expected goals (2.55) as they create (2.51). That means they’re going to need some staying power from their stoppers. Skepticism is understandable, especially given Smith turns 39 exactly one month from today. But Edmonton’s combative goalie is going to give you everything he has. So far, that’s been more than enough.
• Staying with the Oilers briefly, two newcomers are showing why Edmonton had faith in them. Here is Tyson Barrie setting up Jesse Puljujarvi for the opening goal in Friday’s win over Calgary.
It’s a great play by Barrie to drive low and use his vision to find Puljujarvi for the one-timer. After a miserable year in Toronto, Barrie is back to being a big-time point-producing defenceman. His two weekend helpers give him 14 points in his past 12 outings. We all know Puljujarvi’s story and, after spending last year in Finland, the big winger is showing why the Oilers never wanted to give up on him, netting five goals in his past eight games.
• This is what Jets fans hoped for from Pierre-Luc Dubois; just not where they expected it from. Skating in just his third game with Winnipeg after missing 10 days with a muscle injury, Dubois lined up on left wing beside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler during Winnipeg’s 4-3 overtime win against Vancouver on Sunday night. The result was a 2-1-3 night for Dubois, complete with an impressive extra-time winner.
Lineups are fluid, so maybe Dubois flips back to the middle soon. But if crafty Paul Stastny can take care of the second-line centre duties, it’s quite a look for Winnipeg to have Dubois join fellow big bodies Scheifele and Wheeler on the top unit.
• Saturday was a huge day for franchise-defining first-overall picks. Sidney Crosby played his 1,000th NHL game and recorded two assists in a win over the Islanders; Auston Matthews registered his second straight 2-2-4 game by torching Montreal and is still tracking a 50-goal season; Connor McDavid put up a hat trick plus two helpers versus Calgary and Nathan MacKinnon was the king of late-night in the weekend’s first outdoor game, registering a goal and an assist in Colorado’s win over Vegas after play — delayed after the first period by horrible, horrible afternoon sun — resumed at midnight Eastern Time in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
If you can’t be good, be very bad and get very lucky.
• We referenced Jonathan Quick’s amazing recent save percentage earlier and, as you’d expect, it dovetails with some surprisingly positive results for the Kings. L.A. won its fourth straight game on Saturday by downing the Arizona Coyotes and — as of this moment — the Kings sit on the good side of the West Division playoff cut line. Apparently Drew Doughty saw you leave him off your 2022 Canadian Olympic roster because the defenceman is riding a five-game point streak in which he’s got one goal and seven assists.
• Inside or outside, fans or no fans, David Pastrnak just loves scoring hatties
There was no shortage of love for Sid hitting 1,000 games on Saturday, but let’s not forget to give stick tap to Travis Zajac for doing the same one day later.
The Week Ahead
• Is Tuesday’s game in Ottawa a must-win for Montreal? The Habs lost on Sunday night to the North Division’s cellar-dwellers and desperately need to snap out of a 2-4-1 funk in which they just can’t find the net.
• It looks like top prospect Trevor Zegras — who was an absolute stud for gold medal-winning Team USA at the World Junior Championship last month — will make his NHL debut for the Ducks on Monday. Zegras tore up the AHL with four goals and nine points in his eight games there.
• Matthews versus McDavid is always appointment viewing, but the way these two guys and their teams are going right now, make extra sure you’re settled in on Saturday when the two most electric players in the league do their thing on Hockey Night in Canada.