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Come Playoff Time, Goaltending Remains Oilers Biggest Concern

For the better part of the past two months, both Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have played extremely well for the Edmonton Oilers but as the NHL Playoffs approach, the Oilers goaltending remains one of the biggest question marks in all of hockey.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

To suggest Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have turned their seasons around would be an understatement. As the Edmonton Oilers put the finishing touches on what has been an impressive eight week stretch, their netminders have played a big part in righting the proverbial ship. However, as we approach the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, goaltending remains this team’s biggest question mark.

Some would suggest that is no longer the case and on the surface, it’s hard to argue against that point of view. After being arguably the worst goaltender in the league for much of the season, Smith has done a complete 180 in recent weeks. He has gone 9-1 over his last ten appearances, winning all nine of his starts, posting a 1.75 GAA and .949 SV%. In other words, he is the hottest goalie in the league.

Thanks to Smith’s recent play, Koskinen hasn’t seen the net as much of late but had a similar run of success prior to his partner taking over the no. 1 spot. Over a stretch of 20 games from January 22 to April 9, the 33-year-old vet 13-2-3 with a 2.70 GAA and .915 SV%. Not quite as impressive as what his partner’s pulled off late but just as important and done over twice as many appearances.

No matter how we look at it, the Oilers goaltenders have been good of late. Just like the team itself, suggesting anything else would not only be disingenuous but flat-out inaccurate. Having said all of that, the questions surrounding the netminding heading into the playoffs is both understandable and more than fair. Let’s not forget, we’ve seen this song and dance before and the results speak for themselves.

Despite putting together one of the best statistical regular seasons of his career during the shortened and altogether different 2020-21 NHL campaign, Smith was nowhere near the level we saw from Connor Hellebuyck against the Jets. Some will argue that isn’t a fair comparison but come playoff time, it most certainly is. Like it or not, the discrepancy between goaltenders cannot be that severe and it was.

The season prior, both Smith and Koskinen were dreadful against the Chicago Blackhawks and we all know what happened. While both have shown flashes of being able to consistently string wins together during their tenure in Edmonton, neither one has proven capable of giving opposing teams fits come playoff time and acting as if that is somehow going to instantly change is ridiculous.

Now, the wild card this time around could turn out to be Jay Woodcroft. While under Dave Tippett the Oilers were terrible at even strength (thanks in large part to player deployment and the defensive system he used) Edmonton has become a juggernaut and evens since the coaching change. No single thing has impacted this roster’s ability to win games more and as a collective, the players have clearly bought in.

Where the Oilers may run into trouble, their backend is still nowhere near good enough. To make matters worse, their best defenceman is unlikely to be at 100% once the playoffs get going and with this blue line’s shortcomings being what they are, having Darnell Nurse at anything less than full strength is far from ideal. Can you say red flag?

This coaching staff has recognized the limitations of the backend since arriving and it’s played a large role in why Woodcroft and Dave Manson have run 11 forwards and 7 defencemen as often as they have. Unfortunately, that set-up isn’t going to work in the playoffs, where lengthy overtime sessions become the norm…just as we saw during the Oilers - Jets series last season.

The combination of a blue line that isn’t built for playoff success, coupled with goaltending that has yet to prove capable of delivering the kind of performance teams need during the post-season, leaves Edmonton in a tough spot. It may not come back to bite them in a series against the Los Angeles Kings (though it might) but it will rear its ugly head at some point and fans need to understand that.

This roster has the necessary pieces upfront to make life uncomfortable for every team in the league but without the required goaltending to help clean-up some of their hiccups along the way, an extended playoff run seems rather unlikely. Be it Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen, the opportunity to go out and be the hero is there for the taking but expecting either one to run with it seems more than a tad unrealistic.