Oilers’ playoff hopes hinge on Mike Smith finding his game after Game 1 stinker

Oilers’ playoff hopes hinge on Mike Smith finding his game after Game 1 stinker

CALGARY — Jay Woodcroft couldn’t say it enough times on Thursday, the day after the highest-scoring game in Battle of Alberta playoff history. The day after his two goalies let in nine.

“I was happy that we hung six goals on their starting goaltender on the road,” Woodcroft mentioned of the 9-6 loss. “We hung six goals on their starting goaltender in their building. That should be enough to win a game.”

Woodcroft might be facing a goaltending crisis. So, like any National Hockey League coach, he did what he could to shine the spotlight as far from his own crease as possible. Two hundred feet away, where Markstrom was well below average in Game 1.

But at least Markstrom lasted 60 minutes. And is anybody doubting that the Vezina candidate will regain his form in Game 2?

Then there’s Mike Smith, the modern-day Gump Worsley at 40 years old.

Smith whiffed on the first shot in Game 1, allowed a second goal at the 51-second mark, and by 6: 05 of the first period he was pulling on a ball cap, yanked after allowing three goals on the Flames’ first 10 shots.

“It wasn’t an ideal start for our group,” said Smith. “We let each other down.”

Smith stunk in Game 1, but so did his team. He’s right — they did let each other down.

The team, we’ll expect, can put their defensive game back together. But what about the old goalie, who suddenly is being taxed unlike anything he has experienced in five seasons?

Here’s your salient stat of the day: The last time Smith started nine consecutive games was the opening of the 2017-18 season, ironically when he was a Calgary Flame.

This past season he did not start more than four in a row. Last season, no more than six. The season before that, four. The season before that, five.

In his eighth consecutive start in Game 1, Smith hit a wall.

Was it a one-off? Or is he tiring?

“No,” Smith declared Thursday. “It’s the playoffs. You want to play your best hockey of the year. It’s a long series. Stuff happens…”

Smith promises to bounce back in Game 2. Woodcroft went out of his way to announce Smith as his Game 2 starter, a vote of confidence to be sure.

Smith is the goalie here, for better or worse. But at age 40, he is being asked to play more hockey than he has played in years.

“It’s about staying the course and not letting games like that affect you mentally and physically,” said Smith, who did have most of the night off on Wednesday. “This is about as good as I’ve felt all season long. It’s getting the job done when you get the opportunity. There’s no panic in your game. We learn and move on.”

Look, everybody knew the Oilers were taking a chance when they went into the season with a goaltending tandem comprised of the 40-year-old Mike Smith and 33-year-old backup Mikko Koskinen.

Well, now is when we find out the answer to that plan.

General manager Ken Holland whiffed on free agents Markstrom and Darcy Kuemper, while Marc-Andre Fleury simply wasn’t interested in a trip to Oil Country. So, Holland went with the old two-goalie system, and when we say old, we mean old.

Edmonton’s goaltending has been just good enough this season, predicated on Koskinen spelling Smith off every three or four games. But because of injuries, since Smith’s arrival three seasons ago, Koskinen has actually had more regular season starts (102-94) and appeared in more games (109-99).

Suddenly, Smith is in uncharted territory, and the Oilers’ playoff hopes hinge on the 40-year-old recovering his game.

“The message from me is, I want to go out there and be the backbone,” Smith said. “Help this team stay calm, and show that with my play.”

The good news is, with age comes experience.

“I wasn’t very good earlier in my career (at recovering his game), which is why I probably bounced around a bit. Experience helps,” Smith said. “You can’t take back what happened in the past. I could sit here and boo-hoo myself, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I have to think about what happens next.”

Same goes for his team, which rolled out a heinous defensive effort in Game 1. They got waxed 9-6 because the Oilers allowed 17 high danger scoring chances, a number that needs to get pared down by two-thirds.

Can Edmonton flush that effort?

“It’s probably easier actually just because we didn’t play well at all, right?” said Zach Hyman. “It’s wasn’t one of those games where it’s a tight one and you lose in overtime and think, ‘We should have won that game.’ This was just one you wash away. You’re down 1-0 get back to work.”

Back to work, with their fingers crossed that Smith’s game returns as well.

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