Oilers coach Dave Tippett kept his starting goaltender for Game 1 a secret, even from the Blackhawks, until the last minute.
After Mike Smith — the starter he chose — allowed five goals on 23 shots and was pulled for Mikko Koskinen midway through the game, the situation is uncertain again for Game 2 on Monday.
The Hawks are expecting the same secretive gamesmanship.
“We have our notes on both of them,” Dylan Strome said. “We actually didn’t know who was starting until warmups [Saturday]. They kept that pretty tight with their team, and we had no idea. [We’ll] prepare like you’re playing either one.”
True to form, Tippett said Sunday that he’d talk to his goaltenders that night and decide then. He gave no indication which way he was leaning.
“The plan is day-to-day,” he said. “Both of them were fine yesterday.”
Tippett likely chose Smith to start
Game 1 because of the 37-year-old’s playoff history. Smith entered the game boasting a .938 career postseason save percentage, having led the Coyotes to the 2012 conference finals (eliminating the Hawks en route) and excelling in the Flames’ first-round loss to the Avalanche last spring.
Koskinen, a 32-year-old Finn who spent most of his career in Russia, has never started an NHL playoff game.
On the other hand, Koskinen was the better goalie this past regular season, recording a .917 save percentage compared to Smith’s .902.
The difference was even starker with advanced stats: In terms of goals allowed versus expected goals (factoring in quality of shots faced), Koskinen allowed the exact same number as expected, while Smith allowed 11.5 more than expected.
But Smith generally faced slightly fewer and lower-quality shots per game than Koskinen, and he might be able to take some credit for that. He’s arguably the best passing goaltender in the league, often acting like a soccer sweeper for pucks cleared or dumped in behind the net, which aids the Oilers’ defense.
Strome took advantage of Smith’s aggressive puck-playing to score the Hawks’ first goal Saturday, but Sunday he said he has a lot of respect for the goalie’s style.
“They’re both great goalies,” Strome said. “We did a good job of getting traffic on Smith and finding ways to get it past him. Not sure you can really fault him on many of the goals: a couple back doors and a couple tips, and that one-timer by [Dominik Kubalik]. Those are pretty tough goals to stop for anyone in the whole league.”
Tippett also directed blame away from Smith.
“Smith’s turnover was one he’d probably like to have back, but he made two point-blank saves before that when we turned over the puck right in front of him,” Tippett said. “That wasn’t a goaltender problem yesterday, that was a players-in-front-of-him problem.”
Ultimately, the Hawks will enter Game 2 no more certain of the goalie they’ll face for the rest of the series than they were entering Game 1.
It’s an interesting twist of goaltending controversies, considering how Corey Crawford’s absence for most of the Hawks’ training camp drew so much attention. Coach Jeremy Colliton said Crawford was good in Game 1, despite allowing four goals on 29 shots, and it seems he’ll hold down the crease for the duration of the postseason.
Now all the focus is on the Smith-Koskinen battle.
“Whoever they start, we’ll be ready to go,” Colliton said. “They’re not the same goaltender, but there are some similarities. We have to make sure we have people in front. That’s how a lot of our goals are going to be scored in the playoffs.”