If there’s one thing Mike Smith has proven time and again over all the years he’s spent in the goal crease, it’s that he’ll fight you. And if you put him on the floor, you better find a way to keep him there because he’s going to come up swinging if you don’t.
I’m not sure how many times Edmonton Oilers’ coach Dave Tippett has seen Smith do exactly that during the seasons they’ve spent together in the NHL, but when the Oilers staggered to the dressing room for the first intermission last night down 3-1 to the Vancouver Canucks, Tippett never once thought about giving his grizzled goaltender the hook.
Beaten for three goals on the first nine shots he faced in 15:17 against the struggling Canucks, some coaches might have stapled Smith’s backside to the bench then and there. “Not your night, Smitty.” Tippett instead left him in. Smith picked himself up, dusted himself off and stopped the next 24 shots the Canucks directed his way as the Oilers responded with four consecutive goals on the way to a 4-3 win.
Smith can be red hot in stretches, as he had been coming into this game, and ice cold during others. That much we know. The one thing Smith is all the time is ready to battle. So, after clearing his throat in the first intermission at Rogers Arena – we don’t know what he said, who he said it to, and the coach isn’t telling – Smith slammed the door shut on the Canucks.
Bo Horvat made it 1-0 from deep in the corner at 1:06 on a shot Smith absolutely had to stop. Tyler Myers made it 2-0 on a slapper that deflected off the stick of Tyer Ennis. When Elias Pettersson swiped a backhand past Smith to make it 3-0, the Oilers, 9-2-0 in their previous 11 games, were in deep against a team they should beat for fun. If that’s not the hockey version of being on the ropes, I don’t know what is. Enter Mickey Ward, er, Smith.
“No,” said Tippett when asked if he considered yanking Smith when the game was 3-0. “The first one is certainly one Smitty would like to have back. It’s one of those weird ones that goes in. The second one gets deflected by our guy, goes up and over him. The third one, we were poor coverage in front.
“The first one, OK, we’ll blame him on that one. The other two, they’re not on him. We’ve still got lots of game left. Smitty’s a battler. That’s what he does. He’s a vocal guy. He came in after the first period, he had a few things to say. Our group had a few things to say. We got better as the game went on.
“That’s his personality. I’ve been around Smitty a long time. He’s a strong personality with a real passion to win. He understands his role and what has to happen for our team to win, but he also wants to make sure everybody else I engaged in trying to win. That’s Smitty. That’s the leadership he brings. You can only be a leader if you back it up. I’ve seen him for years and years. He’s backed it up.”
With no margin for error, Smith buckled down. A save on Antoine Roussel in the clear shorthanded stands out. A goal late in the first period by Dominik Kahun, with his first of two on the night, also helped swing things Edmonton’s way. Kahun’s second cut it to 3-2 before Connor McDavid tied it on a power play, setting the stage for the winner by Ennis on a lucky bounce with less than seven minutes to go.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“I’ve been in a lot of these games where it can go one of two ways,” Smith said. “I didn’t want it to go the wrong way. I just told myself, ‘Let’s just try and keep this team in the game here.’ I know we can score goals. I know we can play a lot better than we did in the first. We showed that and we got a massive, massive two points.”
Smith wears a mask honoring former Oiler great Grant Fuhr, who fished a fair bit of rubber out of his own net but made a name for himself by tightening up and not allowing the next goal when it mattered most. Jason Gregor asked Smith if he was “Channeling your inner Fuhr there?”
“I’d like to think that,” smiled Smith. “I think I’m very far from being compared to a legend like that. Like I said, I think it was just important that I stuck with it and didn’t let it get to four. Yeah, Grant was the king of that. That’s why he won so many Cups and they won so many championships. I wasn’t thinking about that by any means, but probably a little of the helmet luck helped.”
Instead of stinging from embarrassment going into a rematch with the Canucks, the Oilers likely, and should, feel pretty good about themselves today. While skill and execution accounts for the vast majority of wins by a team any given night, sometimes you get two points by being willing to stay in the fight. Say whatever else you want about Smith, that’s him.