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Koskinen, Smith proving huge keys in Oilers cause

Goalies' solid start helping to support Edmonton offense on way to division lead

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The Edmonton Oilers have two of the best players in the NHL in center Connor McDavid and forward Leon Draisaitl. The problem is depth and goaltending.

Well, goaltending was supposed to be part of the problem, at least.

Goalies Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have been part of the solution for the Oilers, who are off to a 9-4-1 start and lead the Pacific Division.

"Obviously it was something that was a question mark coming in from a lot of different people," Smith said. "But both guys have played well and given the team a chance to win on any given night."

Draisaitl leads the NHL in points (25) and is tied for the lead in goals (12) with Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak. McDavid has 23 points, including an NHL-best 17 assists.

Forward James Neal has 11 goals, including an NHL-best eight on the power play.

No one else on the Oilers roster has more than three goals or nine points. A dozen players have played at least six games and have two points or fewer. That raises the question of whether this is sustainable.

But good goaltending can mask flaws.

When Edmonton made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2016-17, McDavid won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as the League scoring champion with 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists). Draisaitl had 77 points (29 goals, 48 assists).

Video: EDM@DET: Koskinen denies Athanasiou on the break

No one else on the Oilers roster had more than 51 points, but Edmonton tied for seventh in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage at .927. Goalie Cam Talbot played 73 games and had 42 wins, tying for the League lead with Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. Talbot had a 2.39 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and seven shutouts.

McDavid had 108 points (41 goals, 67 assists) in 2017-18, winning another scoring title, and an NHL career-high 116 points (41 goals, 75 assists) last season. Draisaitl reached an NHL career-high 105 points (50 goals, 55 assists) last season. But there were no MVP trophies or playoff appearances, because they didn't have enough help. 

Edmonton was 23rd in 5-on-5 save percentage in 2017-18 at .918 and 24th last season at .915. 

This season?

The Oilers are tied for 12th at .931.

Koskinen went 25-21-6 with a 2.93 GAA, .906 save percentage and four shutouts last season. He's 5-1-0 with a 2.39 GAA and .922 save percentage this season.

Draisaitl sees more of a difference in the team than in Koskinen. Edmonton has a new coach in Dave Tippett, who preaches defense first and working smarter, not harder. It has gone from allowing 31.7 shots per game last season, tied for 18th fewest in the NHL, to 29.9, eighth fewest.

"I don't think people in the hockey world give [Koskinen] enough credit," Draisaitl said. "I don't understand where all the criticism's coming from, to be honest with you. He was good last year. We weren't a good team defensively. We didn't help him out. But he still won us games. We're better defensively this year. We're tighter, and it shows."

Video: EDM@MIN: Smith makes great pair of saves on Kunin

There are some differences with Koskinen, though.

Koskinen spent six seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League before originally signing with the Oilers as a free agent on May 1, 2018. One of his biggest assets is his 6-foot-7 height, and he had to relearn how to use it on the smaller NHL ice surface.

"The angles," Koskinen said. "To get the feeling when I can trust my size and when I can't. Just small things. Now it's been good. I didn't have to spend so much time [adjusting] when I came back this year. So it's way easier."

Koskinen never played more than 41 games in a season in the KHL, either; he played 23 in 2016-17 and 29 in 2017-18. He played 55 for Edmonton last season.

Now he is part of a tandem with Smith, who signed as a free agent July 1. Koskinen has started six games; Smith has started eight.

Smith is 4-3-1 with a 2.29 GAA, a .919 save percentage and one shutout. He has been better than his record indicates.

Before the Oilers faced the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday, McDavid said, "It's unfortunate that [when Smith] goes in, our offense just forgets out how to score goals." In Smith's previous four starts, he had allowed eight goals; the Oilers had scored three. They went 0-3-1.

Edmonton defeated Columbus 4-1 with Smith in net, and Smith even helped jump start the offense, firing a stretch pass up the ice that led to a power-play goal by Neal and a 1-0 lead.

"I'm really impressed how they manage the game, both of those guys, how they just push each other and have that competition," defenseman Oscar Klefbom said. "I think you need two good goalies to get the best out of them.

"As a defenseman, it's really nice to have solid goaltending in the back. It gives a lot of confidence to the whole group."

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