The biggest question surrounding the Edmonton Oilers entering the play-in phase of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is without question who starts in goal. The Oilers simply do not have a bonafide number one goalie like most teams do. Instead, they have two decent goalies in Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.
They virtually split the 2019-20 season down the middle. Smith played in 39 games, while Koskinen appeared in 38. Smith finished the season with a 19-12-6 record, a 2.95 GAA and a .902 save percentage. Koskinen, meanwhile, finished with an 18-13-3 record, a 2.75 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Smith and Koskinen both had one shutout on the season.
On paper, Koskinen appears to be the better bet even though he finished with one less win than Smith. By my eye, the Oilers offense was better with Smith in goal than Koskinen. Why? Could be a coincidence, but it also could be tied to Smith’s ability to play the puck and quickly transition from the defensive zone to the offensive zone.
Smith’s puck handling ability drives a lot of people, myself included, crazy sometimes. There had been gaffes throughout the season that led to needless goals against. On the whole, however, Smith’s puck handling did help the transition game at times in 2019-20. He also gives the team an undeniable swagger that they hadn’t had in goal since Dwayne Roloson packed up and left for Long Island in July of 2009.
Smith is a leader on this Oilers team, and guys respond to him. Whether you like him or not, that is something that must be accounted for.
Koskinen has some real positives too. He was stellar in March for the Oilers, getting them victories against teams like Columbus and Dallas that they probably did not deserve. In his last four games before the break, Koskinen was on a different level for the Oilers.
He posted save percentages of .977 (3/3 @ DAL), 1.000 (3/4 @ CHI in relief), .978 (3/7 V. CBJ) and .938 (3/9 V. VGK) in his last four outings. In all, Koskinen posted a save percentage of .966 in the month of March. He was giving his team a chance to win every night.
One major factor could be how each goaltender starts a season. The report on Koskinen is that he is a starting goaltender in the NHL when he has adequate rest. When he starts to play a lot of games in a row, fatigue is a factor with him. Fatigue isn’t going to be a factor when this series opens up in July or August.
Koskinen posted a .922 save percentage in seven October appearances and a .918 mark in eight games in November. He was very strong in the season’s first two months.
That isn’t a new trend for Koskinen ether. In 2018-19, his first season with the Oilers, Koskinen posted a .927 save percentage in ten November appearances after just one appearance in October.
Smith, meanwhile, has been a wild card. He was good in October for the Oilers, posting a .919 save percentage in eight games. It was good, but still trailed Koskinen’s performance. The wheels fell off Smith in November (.895 save percentage, seven games) and December (.828 save percentage, five games).
Smith bounced back in January (.920, seven games) and February (.916, nine games), but once again fell off in three March games (.867).
Both Smith and Koskinen have positives and negatives to their games. As a result, I’d expect both goaltenders to get work in the playoffs. That will certainly be the case if Edmonton is able to get passed Chicago, as expected.
When it comes to Game 1, however, Mikko Koskinen should be the starter. History suggests that Smith is a wild card to start, while Koskinen has put together two straight seasons of solid starts.
Both will likely be called on, but the smart bet for Game 1 is Koskinen. Will Dave Tippett agree with that sentiment?