As gifts on Fan Appreciation Day go, this was bountiful stuff.
A second straight shutout from goalie Mike Smith who is one of only six guys over 40 who have ever done that, and a snipe from defencemen Kris Russell, his first goal in three years.
Throw in a back-breaking breakaway goal from third-liner Warren Foegele and a third shortie this season from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had three total in his first 656 games, but has that many in 57 this season, and a blast from shutdown defenceman Cody Ceci.
And, a whole paragraph on an Edmonton Oilers victory without typing Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, who skated miles but didn’t get any points in the 4-0 win of the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday to put them in the rear-view mirror, now seven points ahead (94-87) in the Pacific Division.
“They didn’t have a point today, but they were the two happiest guys on the bench when the clock was ticking down … they’re driven to win,” said Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft.
“Obviously, they score most games so for them not to score and us to still win, that’s pretty good,” said Smith, the mane man in net over the last while who made some hair-raising stops in the first 10 minutes when Vegas came out strong, then settled into a 39-save shutout.
“He allowed us to get our sea legs,” said Woodcroft.
“I think everyone is just committed to winning. You can tell, there’s a second and third effort … there’s a willingness to block a shot or box a guy out, the little things that win games. That’s what we talk about all the time,” said Smith.
Smith is certainly from the school of, it’s not where you finish in the standings as long as you’re in the playoffs, but it’s how you’re going to get there. And he sees a road paved with success and good pay-attention-to-the-details habits lately.
“You want to be going in on a high and playing your best hockey. I’m a huge proponent that it’s not a switch that you just flick on and off when you want. The game’s too difficult, winning’s too hard,” he said.
Not for Smith lately. He has stopped 69 straight shots after book-end 4-0 jobs in Nashville and here to give him 44 career shutouts, which ties him with Miikka Kiprusoff and Ryan Miller. He’s on top of the crease, challenging, in clear control and over six straight wins, he has a .955 save percentage and a 1.49 average.
If you go back a month, he’s 8-1-1 since March 17 with a .940 save percentage and an 1.98 average and that includes the horror show in Calgary.
He joined ex-Oiler Dwayne Roloson, Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur, Johnny Bower and George Hainsworth as the only 40-plus goalies with back-to-back shutouts. Two for the ages for the current aged one, who is playing like he’s 30, not 25 days into his 40th year. Three Hall of Famers in Hasek, Brodeur and Bower.
“It seems to feel like that I guess. I’ve really been working hard to get it back on the rails and over the last month or so I’ve been playing some solid hockey,” said Smith. “At this time of the season, you want to be on the top of your game and be a big reason why you’re headed to the playoffs and in the playoffs and playing your best games to give the team the best chance to win.”
Russell got the game-winning goal 16 minutes in off a feed from Zack Kassian and for the Cowboy from Caroline those GWGs are usually a brand of jeans with a big belt buckle.
“Now he’ll stop telling me he scored 35 goals (actually 37 in Medicine Hat) in junior,” laughed Woodcroft, who once again dressed seven D, with Russell the swingman.
Russell hadn’t scored in the NHL since March 17, 2019, a drought of 125 games. Also against the Golden Knights, but in Vegas. So long ago, it was before GM Ken Holland was hired here, so he had never seen Russell score.
Kassian, who didn’t know Russell had gone so long between goals, had an open net but patiently slid it back to Russell who beat rookie Logan Thompson.
“Looking at the replay, it (puck) rolled on me for a second there and I could have probably flicked it over the goalie but then I saw Rusty coming down, so I figured I’d give him a shot. He bought me a few dinners on the road, so I thought I’d give him a freebie,” said Kassian, who had an excellent game, himself.
Ceci’s goal was aided by some heavy shade in front of Thompson by Jesse Puljujarvi, looking like a Finnish Ryan Smyth blocking the goalie’s view.
Foegele stole the puck from Alec Martinez and scored his 12th, his fourth in the last 10 games. Nugent-Hopkins got credit for the last one on a video replay on the goalmouth play when it also appeared Evander Kane had maybe shoved it home.
Draisaitl won 18 of 27 face-offs and McDavid was 9-5. They weren’t all over the scoresheet as usual but that was because the Golden Knights, who blasted Calgary 6-1 Thursday, made it a point of hounding them.
“They’re a big part of our team, obviously,” said Smith. “But I thought Connor has been driving the bus. Whether he’s pointless or not tonight the way he’s working away from the puck. Obviously, everyone knows what he can do with the puck but I don’t think he gets enough credit for how he’s really committed to the defensive side of the puck and the battle level, the compete level.”