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Oilers’ Mike Smith provides ‘boost’ vs. Senators in season debut

EDMONTON — It’s amazing how different a team looks when it is confident in its goaltending, a statement you could apply to either the Ottawa Senators or the Edmonton Oilers on Monday.

Matt Murray was outstanding in the Ottawa net, after being pulled seven minutes into his start at Edmonton a week ago, while Mike Smith stepped off the injured reserve list to stop every single Senators shot in a 3-1 win.

Wait a sec… So why didn’t he get a shutout?

“The only one they got was one we shot in the net ourselves,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett, referencing an Adam Larson clearing attempt that whistled top shelf behind Smith for the game’s first goal. After that Smith was perfect, stopping 27 shots in his season debut after an injury that struck prior to the season.

“He was real strong in the cage, and outside the net he moves the puck as well as anyone,” Tippett said. “It was a solid first game for him.”

In the midst of a stretch that saw these teams play each other four times inside two weeks, Ottawa was light years better at home than it looked during 8-5 and 4-2 losses at Edmonton last week. The Senators were competitive, got excellent goaltending from Murray (beaten just twice on 34 shots), and forced the Oilers to play well for 60 minutes.

The Oilers chipped away with a goal from Leon Draisaitl, and two from fourth-liners Tyler Ennis and Josh Archibald (empty netter). Meanwhile, McDavid extended his points streak to 10 games with an assist on Archibald’s goal, while Draisaitl did likewise with a goal and an assist. He has 20 points over that 10-game span.

It was the kind of team win that goes a long way in an NHL dressing room. Wins like this one are healthy for both coach and player.

“Very. Very healthy,” Tippett said. “We played solid in front of our goaltender. J.J.’s line (Jujhar Khaira’s fourth line) was real solid for us the last 10 minutes of the game. (Kyle) Turris won some big faceoffs for us on the right side. Everyone feels like you’re part of it. Rather than chasing the game (and having to shorten the bench), you’re in the game. It turns into a better team performance all the way through.”

“Guys are feeling better about their game,” Kailer Yamamoto said. “It was huge getting Smitty back tonight.”

Pretty Smitty

As the game gets faster, and forwards blitz into the zone unimpeded on the forecheck, a goalie who plays the puck like Mike Smith becomes even more valuable.

Sure, if he’s not stopping enough pucks no one cares how good a passer he is. We get it: He’s a goalie first, a puck-mover second.

But watching him for the first time this season, you forget how helpful he is to an efficient breakout when he gets to the puck first, his head up while the defencemen simply take up positions in the corners to accept a pass. They’re not getting hit, the forecheckers are rendered nearly useless, and before you know it the puck is heading north.

The Oilers were credited with 81 controlled zone exits, compared to 61 for Ottawa on Monday.

“He’s big in the locker room, he talks a lot. He’s a good boost for us. But the biggest thing is how he plays the puck,” Ennis said. “He gives our ‘D’ some relief back there. He’s a motivator, a good leader and he stops the puck. He gave us a boost tonight.”

As we’ve penned before, Smith and Mikko Koskinen couldn’t be more dissimilar. The big Finn is quiet, and keeps to himself. Smith is an alpha dog who drags the dressing room along with him. He injects confidence, but again, only if he is stopping pucks.

“He’s a veteran guy, with a strong personality in the room,” Tippett said. “He’s a leader in that room — he’s got a confidence about him that shows when he goes in the net.”

Heard the News?

Did Zack Kassian hear about his coach’s quote from the morning skate, when Tippett replied to a question about Kassian only having two minor penalties all season with this nugget?

“We’d like to see him get more engaged in games. That’s kind of an understatement,” said Tippett, leaning in a bit on his docile heavyweight.

It was reporter Jim Matheson who had asked Tippett about Kassian’s paltry two minor penalties thus far this season. Well, on Kassian’s first shift he arranged a fight with the six-foot-five Erik Gudbranson — almost as if he was aware that his coach was looking for a bit more from him. It was helluva scrap, and we’ll give Kassian the decision, although he left the game with an upper body injury after the fight and returned only for one shift.

So Matheson asked Tippett about Kassian again after the game.

“You wanted him to get more penalty minutes,” said the coach. “That’s where we are: He got more penalty minutes.”

But, Tippett admitted, at least we noticed Kassian.

“It’s unfortunate he gets hurt, but he was engaged in the game.”

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