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Oilers’ loss to Flames shines searing spotlight on cost of goaltending woes

EDMONTON — There was a time when the Edmonton Oilers had a goalie who could let in five, but would never surrender that all-important sixth goal. More often than not those old Oilers teams would win the game 6-5 — or 8-5 — and nobody cared what Grant Fuhr’s goals against average was.

The only stat that mattered was how many wins Fuhr had — because he always gave his team a chance to win.

Well, that was then.

Today, if the opponent gets to three you’re likely to lose. So Mikko Koskinen’s 3.55 goals against average is a problem.

A major problem.

Today, the Oilers have a goalie who simply doesn’t give them enough save on enough nights, as was evident again Saturday night in Calgary. Edmonton scored four but lost 6-4 to a Flames team that played well, but had too easy a time getting the puck past Koskinen.

And Jacob Markstrom was simply better.

“They have a really good goaltender. He had a solid night,” agreed defenceman Adam Larsson, who would defend his goalie if questioned.

The closest the coach came to admitting that the goaltending is killing his team was this: “It’s a combination,” said Dave Tippett. “You’ve got to play better in front of your goalie and the goalie has to make more saves.”

Of course the team has to play well defensively. Goes without saying.

But somehow, in Game 12 Saturday the Oilers allowed two goals against inside a two minute span, for the eighth time this season.

That tells me that the goalie can’t give them a save when they need it. Can’t stop the bleeding.

When Jesse Puljujarvi scores to make it 3-3 early in the third period, Koskinen responds by having Dillon Dube’s power-play shot — from a predictable opposition — squeeze right though him and into the net, just a minute-and-half later. It’s deflating, and if you think the Oilers bench isn’t sagging every time Koskinen lets in his fourth of the night — or the first shot of the game, as he did Saturday — you’re kidding yourself.

They’re all pros. They know good goaltending from bad.

The 38-year-old Mike Smith returns to the lineup on Sunday, though he hasn’t had a save percentage of over .902 in two seasons. He’ll start one of the games in Ottawa — either Monday or Tuesday — but in the meantime, Edmonton watched a three-game winning streak get snapped on a night when they scored four, but simply couldn’t outscore the quality of netminding they received.

They’ve got a decent team in Edmonton, but the most important position in hockey has been woefully neglected. You don’t win when your goalie’s save percentage starts with an eight, or when the penalty kill is near last in the league because it can’t get a save.

“We’re looking for some better play in front of the goalie, and the goalie could stop a couple more,” Tippett said.

Koskinen gets credit for playing as many minutes as he has, but the painful truth is, the Oilers have the second best goalie on the ice most nights. Sometimes they overcome it, sometimes they don’t – like on Saturday, when it took seven goals to win the game.

It’s really on management, on GM Ken Holland, that they went to war this season with a tandem of Koskinen and Smith, who hasn’t played a minute yet. The big Finn lugged an .897 save percentage into the game, then allowed six goals on 28 shots — a .786 save percentage.

He’s at .889 this morning. You don’t make the playoffs when your starter is sub .915 — a number that seems out of this stratosphere for Koskinen’s leaky game.

Of course, the penalty kill can’t get through enough powerplays — because they can’t get a save either. That unit ranked 25th in the NHL prior to the game, then went one-for-three Saturday.

Whether you’re facing Markstrom in Calgary, Carey Price in Montreal, Frederik Andersen in Toronto, or Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg — almost every night in the North Division the Oilers go into the game knowing their goalie isn’t as good as the guy at the other end. That’s not an opinion — it’s a fact.

You can find as many excuses as you want. The Oilers are going nowhere with this level of goaltending.

It isn’t good enough. Not even close.

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