For the first time in years, the Edmonton Oilers entered a postseason with more answers than questions. It seemed like everybody was on the same page where the Oilers were concerned: They have finally figured it out and we could take them seriously as a Stanley Cup contender.
And there was really no reason to doubt Edmonton’s upside. The Oilers went 26-9-3 under new head coach Jay Woodcroft and went into the postseason riding a 13-2-1 stretch. Improved structure under Woodcroft meant that the defense wasn’t torpedoing the wonderful work Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were doing up front.
A big part of Edmonton’s second-half surge was the play of Mike Smith in goal. Goaltending is already one of the most volatile positions in sports and Smith takes that to a new level. It’s not uncommon to see Smith play lights out for a 20-game stretch and then have his game fall off a cliff without warning for the next 20 games.
But going into the postseason it looked like things were clicking for Smith in a way that they hadn’t been for quite some time. Smith posted a .919 save percentage and a +10.93 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) from Feb. 1 until the end of the season — a span of 22 games.
With Smith in form and a defense doing yeoman’s work in front of him, it looked like the Oilers were deserving of their status as heavy favorites over the over-achieving Los Angeles Kings in Round 1. You can’t overlook any opponent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there were a lot of signals that pointed to this being a very favorable matchup for the Oilers.
But in true Oilers’ fashion, they dropped Game 1 to the Los Angeles Kings thanks to shoddy goaltending from Smith. In a game that was more wide open than expected and saw each team record 35+ shots on goal and combine for 35 high-danger scoring chances, it was a gaffe by Smith late in the contest that sealed Edmonton’s fate.
Outside of Smith’s error and a slow start in the first period, Edmonton played a pretty decent game and, in theory, should be the benefactors if the teams continue to trade scoring chances at a high clip. Los Angeles does a decent job driving play at 5-on-5 and getting pucks to the net, but the Kings underperformed by about 25 goals compared to their expected goals during the regular season. Los Angeles just doesn’t come close to having the finishing talent that Edmonton does.
The Oilers will be dealing with playoff demons and a ton of pressure on Wednesday night, but bettors should trust that the team we saw for the entire second half is good enough to come back and win this series.
Now, we just need to hope that good Mike Smith shows up.