EDMONTON — It was Mike Smith’s first National Hockey League start as a 40-year-old. So the fact he’s starting to play like he did in his 30s is somewhat ironic — and timely as could be for the Edmonton Oilers.
“To be honest, I feel like I was pretty solid tonight,” said Smith, who stopped 28 shots and was lucky on the two that went in during a 5-2 walk over the San Jose Sharks on Thursday. “I didn’t like either goal, I was out of position a little bit, but I was letting pucks come to me a little more. The last few, I felt like my game is coming along.
“I want to be playing my best hockey at this time of year. I feel like it’s trending in the right direction.”
Look, it’s hard for anyone to find their game when you’re hurt or sick as often as Smith has been this season. Even worse when you are the local Gump Worsley or Johnny Bower, the NHL’s second-oldest goalie who grew up wearing horse hair pads on the outdoor rinks back home in Kingston, Ont.
Does it feel any different at 40, after celebrating his birthday on Tuesday?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It went from 30 to 40 pretty quick, but other than that I feel the same.
“Still a dad and still playing hockey,” he said, glancing over at two of his kids in the interview room. “Which is kind of cool.”
Look, you can hate the Oilers’ goaltending plan, where Mikko Koskinen and Smith were supposed to share the net all season long. But over the past two months Koskinen has been one of the top goalies in the NHL.
If Smith can find his form, at least GM Ken Holland’s plan has a chance to work. Smith just has to stay healthy long enough to find his game.
“The same could be said for our team,” said Zach Hyman, whose Oilers trotted out a fully healthy lineup for the first time in forever, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back after missing 12 games, and newcomers Brett Kulak and Derick Brassard both playing a regular shift.
“It is nice to be fully healthy, and for Smitty, as a goalie it is tough when you don’t play regularly. You play a couple games and you get hurt, a couple of games and get hurt,” said Hyman. “For him to finally get healthy, just like our team, and get to play more consistently, I think you are seeing what he can do.”
Two nights prior, the Oilers had blown a late 3-2 lead in Dallas, and done nothing with a power play that could have made the score 4-2. So when they got a 3-2 lead and the referee’s hand went up on Thursday, it was one of those moments where you could check in on how a team reacts.
With a few seconds, Hyman was making a smart feed to Connor McDavid, who drew the penalty-killing box his way before sliding a puck to a wide-open Leon Draisaitl for the big German’s 44th. The power play went two-for-two, and that was enough to knock off the Sharks.
“First time we’ve had a fully healthy lineup and had to make hard lineup decisions,” head coach Jay Woodcroft noted. “As we move forward, it’ll be tough to make decisions on who’s in and who’s out. Three really good players didn’t play tonight.”
Kulak stepped in for Kris Russell, while Brassard and Nugent-Hopkins set Josh Archibald and Derek Ryan in the press box.
There is always room for change on the fourth line, but on this team, there is a spot for a player of RNH’s caliber 82 nights a year. He had seven shots on goal and went 57 per cent in the circle in his return.
“For me, Nuge is a real key piece,” Woodcroft said. “He touches a lot of areas of the game and allows us to play the three centers to have a real strong spine of our team. I find when he’s in the lineup it leads to a really nice balance.”
When Edmonton runs McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins down the middle, there aren’t many teams in the entire league that can top it. We’re not saying they don’t have any weaknesses, just that down the middle isn’t one of them anymore.
Add Smith, whose puck-handling skills take a ton of pressure off the defense when he’s at the top of his game, and you might have a club that can give the Calgary Flames a run for their money on Saturday night in Cowtown.
That’s going to be, in the immortal words of the late Ed Whalen, a real ring-a-ding-dong dandy.
Like him or not, Smith gives this team some much-needed swagger.
“The way he carries himself when he walks through the room, he’s a leader amongst our team,” said the coach. “When he’s feeling good, I think the team’s feeling good.”