Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith has been on a rollercoaster of sorts to start his team’s second round series with the Calgary Flames. He has certainly had his share of downs over the first two games but the tide started to shift over the final period and a half of last night’s 5-3 Oilers win.
To suggest Mike Smith has had a tough go of things to start the Edmonton Oilers second round series with the Calgary Flames would be putting it nicely. After the accolades came pouring in for the performance he delivered against the Los Angeles Kings during the opening round of the playoffs, the veteran netminder has seen a massive regression in his play over these first two games.
To his credit, following a second consecutive first period meltdown, he managed to right the ship and make a handful of crucial stops during the back half of Game Two. With the series now tied, the Oilers have a real shot at taking this thing but in order for that to happen, they will need their 40-year old guardian to find a happy medium when it comes to his performance.
Expecting Smith to go out and put up similar numbers to what we saw against the Kings is both unfair and unrealistic. In that series, he posted a .938 SV% and 2.29 GAA but it came against a team who was offensively challenged and literally shot the puck from everywhere. Calgary does tend to do a bit of the latter but at nowhere near the same degree and they have guys who can put the puck in the net.
That last part, the fact the Flames can actually score goals, is what makes the pucks that have managed to get past Smith so alarming. In just over three periods of action, he has allowed six goals against and one could easily make the argument that four or five of them had no business going in. To make matters worse, five of the six were scored inside the first seven minutes of games and that cannot continue.
Frankly, in a series with two teams as talented as these, there is zero chance of coming out on top with that kind of goaltending. Luckily for the Oilers, Jakob Markstrom has had his share of hiccups along the way and it’s given this group the belief that they are never out of a game. Like Smith, he was much better in Game Two than the opener and Calgary will need much more from the Vezina nominee.
Smith has no control over what his counterpart does or doesn’t do at the other end of rink and can’t get into a “me vs him” sort of mindset. When he’s at his best, he carries himself with even more cockiness than he typically does and his movement is much quieter and under control. His style of play and lingering injury automatically leads to him looking scattered but there is chaos and controlled chaos.
For the first 36 minutes or so of this series, there was very little of latter and way too much of the former. That changed over the final period and half of Game Two and it played a key role in the Oilers comeback win. Not only did Smith no longer look like a guy who was unsure if he could stop any puck Calgary throw his way, he made a handful of saves during moments his team needed them most.
After dropping the series opener, Edmonton deserves a ton of credit for being able to go out and deliver a far more disciplined and structured performance. Yes, they still gave up chances but limiting those opportunities was a must and it allowed Smith to find his way over the course of the evening. Once he managed to do that, he was able to hold up his end of the bargain and it changed everything.
Now, the question becomes can Smith maintain some semblance of that over these next five games? Again, expecting the totals from round one is pointless so remove than from the equation. To be perfectly honest, unless we are talking some god awful numbers, even those don’t matter over the course of a series. Once a game is done, be it good or bad, it no longer matters.
All this Edmonton Oilers team needs from their goaltender is to stop pucks he should routinely have (especially early in games), ensure his usual on-ice demeanor remains intact and find a way to make a handful of great/timely saves along the way. If Mike Smith can manage to pull that off, there is a real good chance the Calgary Flames will find themselves on the wrong end of yet another Battle of Alberta.