Being Mike Smith hasn’t been much fun this year. Or last, when you think about how long the hockey world has been talking about how the Edmonton Oilers need a No. 1 goalie.
Don’t think he’s not listening. How could you not?
He’s 40, and he’s been (predictably) hurt more than he’s been healthy this season, finally putting together a 5-0-1 run as a starter that will do nothing to quell the noise in Edmonton. These years of failing to find a bonafide starting goalie has earned the Oilers the nickname “Philly West.”
But there was Smith, Tuesday night at the Shark Tank, carrying his team through a San Jose sleepwalk and somehow pulling the Oilers into an overtime period they had no business being in, tied 1-1.
Then, after making his 31st and final save of the night, there was the old fart, setting the puck down and whacking it out past centre ice, where Connor McDavid was blasting past a San Jose defender and accepting the breakaway pass for his 41st goal, a game-winner in overtime.
The primary assist went to Smith, on a 2-1 game-winner you’ll not see again for years, we’d wager.
“Smitty has been here for a few years now and he’s always asked me when we’re gonna connect for a breakaway,” McDavid said. “We couldn’t have picked a better time.”
That goal, and the shorthanded effort by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that tied the game with 8:04 to play, vaulted the Oilers past the Los Angeles Kings and into second place in the Pacific. With a game in hand on the Kings, Edmonton closes their 2-0 California road trip with a finale in L.A. Thursday night, a chance to pull clear of the Kings for home-ice advantage in Round 1.
“Our goalie makes the play of the year there,” beamed McDavid, who ran his points streak to 14 games and tied a career-high in goals. “It was pretty special just to be a part of that play. It was one of the more special ones I’ve been a part of.”
On a night where an injured Leon Draisaitl sat out after playing 354 consecutive games, the Oilers were flatter than a loony on the train tracks, with just 24 shots on net. Hey, they’re on an 11-2-1 run. They’re allowed a sleepy night, and this was one.
“I don’t think it was our cleanest, sharpest or best game of the year. But we stayed on task,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “We talked in between periods about how, even if you’re not feeling well, it doesn’t mean you can’t play well. And the way you play well is by sticking within the team structure.”
That, and having a 40-year-old goalie who is still capable of saving your bacon once in a while.
Smith was beaten only by a Tomas Hertl one-timer on the power play, and made a ton of crucial stops right up until that final one, which he quickly turned into a primary assist.
If only turning around Oilers fan opinions of their team’s goaltending situation could happen as quickly.
“You know, he’s battled all season long through different injuries and different things. And he’s taken a lot of heat,” said McDavid. “When he’s in the net he gives us everything he’s got. Tonight, he gave us everything he had, and then some.”
Back in the 90’s, Oilers goalie Curtis Joseph and penalty-killing forward Kelly Buchberger had a play where Buchberger would bolt for the breakaway while Joseph would flip a high backhand that would land somewhere around the opposing blue-line and Bucky streaked under it like a wide receiver on a long bomb route.
But Joseph merely dabbled in effective puck handling. Smith is the reigning Godfather among NHL ‘tendies.
When Joseph-to-Buchberger worked — around five percent of the time — it was a miracle. When Smith makes a 120-foot pass, you know it’s no mistake. He makes two or three per game.
“I saw him make that save … and I just saw out of the corner my eye, saw him move it pretty quickly,” McDavid said. “So I just tried to get there as quick as I could. You know, he must be a curling fan or something. Perfect, perfect weight on it. It was a great play.”
This kind of win will likely be referenced down the road in Edmonton’s dressing room more than the previous one, a 6-1 cakewalk in Anaheim. Edmonton is good at winning when they have all their guns and they’re feeling good. In the past two months they’ve handled plenty of teams they should beat, on nights where they’re dancing.
This was not that.
“It was ugly, it was ugly,” repeated McDavid. “(San Jose) clearly had legs and they were motivated, and I thought our group just did a good job of hanging around. Smitty held us in all night and you know, it feels like we kind of maybe stole two points here.
“But it doesn’t matter how you get them at this time of year.”