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Oilers goalies Smith, Koskinen fuelled by friendly competition in pursuit of Cup run

Mike Smith’s four kids – Aksel, Ajax, Nixon and Kingsley – will no doubt chuckle at their dad’s response to a reporter asking what he plans to bring into the Edmonton bubble for the NHL post-season.

“Obviously a few pairs of underwear,” the fiery netminder quipped on a Zoom call with reporters. “I don’t know if there’s any laundry there or nothing, but I’m expecting to be there a long time.”

So long, in fact, that he hopes to be crowned a Stanley Cup champion on home ice at Rogers Place, albeit without the customary gathering of 18,437 spectators in attendance.

The performance of Smith – and that of fellow goalie Mikko Koskinen – is crucial to the Oilers’ chances of authoring a fairy tale for their long-suffering fans. Edmonton opens the Stanley Cup qualifiers on Aug. 1 in a best-of-five play-in series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“We’ve got a great deal of confidence in Mike and Mikko, and we’ll continue to monitor through camp where each guy is at,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “But I envision both getting a chance to play.”

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo previews Oilers-Blackhawks:

In part 4 of 10, Rob Pizzo breaks down whether the Blackhawks could upset the Oilers.  1:05

The silver-haired among the Oiler faithful are accustomed to a goaltending platoon. Back in the dynasty years of the 1980s, Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog largely split playing time in the Edmonton net.

But come the playoffs, Glen Sather leaned towards the acrobatic Fuhr. All signs point to Tippett doing the same with Smith.

Tippett coached Smith in Dallas and Phoenix, so there’s long-standing familiarity and trust. And then there’s the experience factor. Through 24 career playoff games, Smith has posted a 2.17 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

Koskinen’s playoff experience? Zero games thus far.

“I think both guys want to play,” Smith said. “I’m preparing like I’m going to start Game 1, and I think Mikko is doing the same thing. We’ve had that mentality all season long, and I think it’s made for a great, friendly, competitive battle in net.

“I think it’s a big reason why this team has had success this year with both guys being able to play and contribute to the team’s winning.”

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo previews Western round-robin:

In part 2 of 10, Rob Pizzo examines whether the defending champion Blues will come out of the round-robin with the #1 seed.  1:16

When on top of his game, Smith is a shutdown netminder. He effectively gives the Oilers an extra defenceman due to his exceptional puck-handling ability.

But there’s a flip side. His tendency to roam can lead to pucks in his own net. He’s streaky and, at age 38, nearing the end of his career.

Difficulty of playing without fans

There’s also the question of how such an extroverted player will perform with no fans to provide fuel with their adoration and fury.

“It’s going to be really strange,” said Smith, who is an Edmonton folk hero, of sorts, after clobbering Calgary netminder Cam Talbot in a line brawl on Feb. 1. “Whether they’re booing or cheering for you, it’s always nice to hear people in the stands and hear how excited they are to cheer for their team.

“It’s obviously going to be a big adjustment not having that energy. We’ll have to create our own energy as a group here.”

WATCH | Mike Smith fights Calgary’s Cam Talbot:

Oilers’ Mike Smith and Flames’ Cam Talbot meet at centre ice and drop the gloves as the Battle of Alberta boils over. 0:47

In 38 games this season, Smith went 19-12-6 with a 2.95 goals against average and a save percentage of .902. The soft-spoken Koskinen (18-13-3) posted a 2.75 goals against average with a save percentage of .917.

“There’s so much going on here,” Koskinen said of playing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You just have to do your best and enjoy it.”

The Oilers will score goals for as long as their post-season journey lasts – that much is given with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the lineup.

Edmonton’s fate hinges largely on Smith and Koskinen’s success in keeping the puck out of the net.

“We have two different personalities but they mix well together,” Smith said. “Whether it’s him or me, both guys are cheering for each other and we just want to do whatever we can to help this team win.

“We just want to get to the top and raise Lord Stanley.”

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