Mike Smith Pulled Himself Together
11:32 AM EDT on May 25, 2022
The most memorable play of Oilers goalie Mike Smith's Tuesday was the one he most dramatically failed to make. With Edmonton leading 3-2 in the third period of Game 4, Flames defenseman Rasmus Andersson fired a clearance from his own third of the ice during the late stages of a penalty kill. This is a nothing play 100 times out of 100, but somehow, in this case, the puck grew a pair of eyes. It sailed across the ice at speed and, to everybody's disbelief, foiled a lackadaisical Smith by shooting past his glove and into the net. It was pure embarrassment, and it tied the game.
Andersson's goal had all the makings of a turning point in the series, which was 2-1 Edmonton and had looked certain to be headed for 3-1 after the Oilers scored the game's first trio of goals. My immediate point of reference was Nick Lidstrom's 2002 center-ice goal in Game 3 of the first round against the Canucks, which jolted the eventual Cup-winning Red Wings out of an 0-2 series pit. The Flames were on a roll. They had the luck and the bounces and the momentum. The Oilers were reeling in front of a home crowd that was equal parts infuriated and panicked. But Calgary never scored again.
A mostly unmemorable play from Mike Smith's Tuesday was one he made with just four minutes left, and the game still tied at three. Calgary cornerstone Johnny Gaudreau took a pass, brought the puck across center ice, and bopped it toward Smith when he saw he didn't have support. Gaudreau then skated toward the puck, likely hoping that he could force Smith to cover it and give the Flames a face-off in their attacking zone. He would have been forgiven for doing so, especially after a bad goal like the one above that can make goalies squirrelly and conservative. Smith, however, ushered the puck to the ice and without hesitation or fear lifted his glove to make a quick pass to Duncan Keith and send the Oilers back out on the attack.
This small bit of bravery didn't directly lead to the Oilers' fourth goal. But there was no whistle between this continuation of play and game's climactic moment, when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins sniffed out the game-winner.
Smith's tiny contribution, keeping the puck alive rather than turtling, stood out to me because it represents something I often take for granted from athletes—the ability to stay calm and collected after screwing up on a grand, spectacular scale. Smith has a history of playoff disappointment—he lost 10 straight games from 2019 through Game 1 of this year's first round—but none would have been more momentous or more emphatically on him than letting a 3-1 series lead in a massive rivalry evaporate into stalemate with Game 5 back down south. I would have collapsed into an inconsolable heap if I had done this. I would have begged for Mikko Koskinen to relieve me. But Smith continued to do his job like he's done for most of the playoffs, without any apparent jitters or nerves, until the Oilers offense cleaned up his mess.
It's a seeming inevitability of the playoffs that every goalie will suffer a moment of mental havoc. The difference between wins and losses is not necessarily avoiding those, but rather how each goalie responds to the adversity. Rangers netminder Igor Shesterkin, for example, has already faced plenty of struggles in these playoffs after a world-beating year, even suffering a pair of benchings in the first round against the Penguins. He encountered more trouble on Sunday in Game 3 against the Hurricanes, when Nino Niederreiter cut into a 2-0 lead with a feathery backhander that Igor should have easily managed.
The Rangers were down 0-2 in the series when this goal crossed the line. In the ensuing 90 minutes of hockey, however, Shesterkin has allowed just one more goal (and that with his boys already leading 3-0 in the third) as he's piloted them back into a tie by doing everything his heavily reliant team demanded of him.
“You get a little disappointed for a second and you say a few mean words,” Shesterkin said of his Game 3 softie. “Then you forget about it.”
The flip side here is Calgary goalie Jacob Markstrom, who was rock solid through an impressive Flames season but has failed to produce even an adequate performance in any of the four Edmonton games. Following Game 3, where he got yanked for Dan Vladar after allowing four goals in a 12-minute span, Markstrom began his redemption bid in the worst way possible. Before anyone had even gotten comfy in their seats, Markstrom went limp on an attempted pass from behind his net, and Nugent-Hopkins instantly capitalized with a ruthless opener. This was what allowed Edmonton to both set the tone and cushion their fall when Smith slipped up later on.
The beauty of the playoffs is that Markstrom will still get at least one more chance to pick himself up. The cruelty of the playoffs is that most of the blame for elimination will fall on him if he doesn't.