EDMONTON — Mike Smith was old, and according to some, looked tired. According to me, actually.
It was Game 2, and after getting the hook in the 9-6 opener, Smith had left a rebound sitting in his crease for Brett Ritchie to deposit. That made it 2-0 just six minutes into Game 2, and as that old Calgary wrestling promoter Stu Hart would have said, at that point the Flames were “directin’ traffic.”
Smith was looking every bit like the 40-year-old geezer who wasn’t supposed to be able to measure up to Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom. The guy who everyone in the hockey world doubted could do it every second night in May.
But from about the seven-minute mark of Game 2, right through a near perfect night in Sunday’s 4-1 win, Smith has done something that not a single pundit thought he would — or could — ever do.
He’s been the best goaltender in this Battle of Alberta, and it hasn’t been close.
And the numbers?
How about a series saves percentage of .916 for Smith, and a goals against average of 3.45, compared to .853 and 5.74 for Markstrom?
Who looks tired now?
“I’m just trying to make saves for our group in there, to be honest. I’m trying to stay as poised as possible and make saves when the team needs me to,” said Smith, his curly mane held hostage by a flat-brimmed Oilers ball cap. “The fans have been unbelievable all playoffs. Tonight was no different, maybe a little louder with the Battle of Alberta. It is just an unbelievable feeling to play in front of this fan base and I am excited to get a win.”
On a night when Leon Draisaitl set a National Hockey League record with four assists in a single period of a playoff game; when Connor McDavid set an NHL record with his ninth multi-point game in the first 10 games of a playoff run; when Evander Kane scored the seventh-fastest hat trick in Stanley Cup playoff history (six minutes flat), the most promising element of the Oilers’ game was how little they gave up.
Their team defence was impeccable, and behind it all Smith looked like he has plenty of game left here beyond the May long weekend.
Yes, he looks anything but tired now.
“He only played 28 regular-season games,” reasoned head coach Jay Woodcroft. “You add 10 in the playoffs and that’s 38. He’s in mid-season form right now. It’s not like he played 63 games and add another 10 on top of that and all the wear and tear of that.”
Edmonton gave up little in the first period, nothing in the second, and then cruised through the third as the score effects took over, helping the Flames get to 33 shots on goal. But while the game was in the balance, this was a defensive gem that nobody who watched the first two games of this series would have predicted.
And as we suspected, this Oilers team has something going for it today that it did not have in early ousters of the past two seasons. It’s a wicked, two-headed weapon, and one we wrote about two years ago:
When McDavid and Draisaitl command a hockey game from the defensive zone as well as they do from the O-zone, this Oilers team becomes a very difficult team to defeat. When they’re as hard to score on as they are to defend, now you’ve got a recipe that can last — one the Flames are going to have to find an antidote for.
“Obviously they made some plays on those goals that were spectacular,” Woodcroft said of his two superstars, who now lead all playoff scorers with 23 and 19 points, respectively. “But I would talk about their checking. The way they defended.
“That line (with Kane) — Connor and Leon both finished plus-4 . When our best players are leading the way defensively, setting the tone for what’s expected for the full 200 feet, that makes us a better team.”
“He has taken his game to the next level,” Kane said of his captain. “He’s not just doing it on the scoresheet — that’s what is allowing him to really showcase his skill. He is physical, he is involved. he is winning puck battles along the wall, both in the defensive and offensive zones. He is a dominant force out there.”
What McDavid is doing, averaging 2.3 points per game after averaging 1.5 per game in the regular season, is beyond incredible. How Draisaitl is producing on one leg, giving his team 21 minutes per game and outscoring every player in the NHL not named McDavid, is epic.
And then there’s Kane, who was simply looking for the right place to put in a half a season to pump up his value for free agency. He has delivered in spades, with a playoff-leading 10 goals, three of which extinguished Calgary in Game 3.
“I knew I was going to be back in the NHL,” said Kane, thinking back to his early-season trouble with the San Jose Sharks. “I was very confident in that. It was just a matter of when and when I got that opportunity, taking full advantage of it.”
Right now, it’s advantage Edmonton.
They’re winning the goaltending battle, their best players are better than Calgary’s best players, and in Game 3 they snuffed out the Flames for all the minutes that mattered.
“When your best players are playing the best hockey of their careers in the playoffs,” Smith said, “your team has a really good chance to win.”
Ain’t that the truth?