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Skinner has confidence of his coach, but playoff goaltending a concern for Oilers

Despite some ugly early-series numbers, Edmonton Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner still has the faith of his coach.

Skinner gave up three goals on the first seven shots he faced in Wednesday’s Game 2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers rallied before losing 5-4 in overtime on a breakaway goal from Anze Kopitar.

The Western Conference first round series is tied 1-1, but Skinner has a wobbly .857 save percentage through the first two games.

Skinner’s play through the first two games is reminiscent of the goaltending struggles that plagued the team in the 2023 post-season. In the 2023 playoffs, Skinner was pulled four times in 12 starts, as then-coach Jay Woodcroft displayed that he wouldn’t be patient with the goalie’s sluggish starts.

Kris Knoblauch, who took over as Oilers coach in November, showed more patience. When asked if he thought about pulling Skinner after the third Kings goal, his answer was a blunt “no.”

And then he gave Skinner his vote of confidence ahead of Game 3.

“I’ve seen him take ownership and accountability and come out really solid and play superbly,” said Knoblauch. “I have no doubt he can do that.”

Behind Skinner is Calvin Pickard, who posted a .909 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average in 23 starts this season. But playing a goalie who started the season in the American Hockey League would be a gutsy call in the playoffs.

Through his short NHL career, the Oilers’ Edmonton-born goalie has been philosophical about his play, and has often said that “numbers lie.”

But, in the playoffs, numbers absolutely matter.

In 2023, Skinner placed a lot of the blame for the Oilers’ second-round exit to the Vegas Golden Knights on himself. He posted an .883 save percentage over two rounds.

The 2024 playoffs haven’t been any better, so far. The Kings scored a couple of bizarre goals in the third period of Game 1, thanks to defenders breaking sticks and multiple deflections off skates, but it wasn’t enough to threaten an Oilers team on the way to a 7-4 rout.

But, in Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to Los Angeles, Skinner posted just 21 saves on 26 shots. Kopitar roofed the game-winning shot over Skinner’s shoulder.

“I didn’t really do too much,” Skinner said after the Game 2 loss. “I don’t think I was a big factor in the game tonight, and that’s OK. I am going to get better from that and move on.

“They’re getting some good puck luck right now, We’ve had our share of puck luck, as well. That’s how hockey works, sometimes. But the puck luck wasn’t on my side tonight.”

There were some mitigating factors. The winning goal came on a breakaway. The second goal of the game saw Adrian Kempe bat the puck out of the air while streaking towards the net. The third goal, a breakaway from Drew Doughty, came after the Kings’ defenceman lost control of the puck, but it slid through Skinner’s legs. The Kings’ fourth goal came on a screen.

The opening goal of the game, also from Kempe, was the one Skinner wanted to have back.

“He made a good shot, but I think I can make that stop,” he said. The second goal was an odd bounce off two guys. On the third one Doughty mishandled the breakaway as he was trying to go to his backhand and I could have made a better read. The fourth one, I didn’t see it at all. (Quinton) Byfield made a good screen. The fifth one was a strange deflection that lands right on Kopitar’s stick and he made a good shot.

“It is a good opportunity to learn and grow.”

Oilers defenceman Mattias Ekholm he doesn’t feel like the Kings have been all that threatening offensively — despite the fact they’ve scored nine goals in two games.

“When they do make good plays on you, they obviously have broken you down.I don’t think that’s the case here. There’s not a lot of offensive time for them where they just hem you in.”

Other goalie are posting sub-par numbers in the playoffs. The Kings’ Cam Talbot, made a sparkling late second-period stop at full stretch to rob Leon Draisaitl of a goal in Game 2, but he’s posted an .867 save percentage. Star goalies like Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Dallas’s Jake Oettinger are at .870 and .857, respectively.

Skinner is confident he can bounce back, but he knows over the course of the playoffs, there will be rough patches.

Game 3 is his chance for redemption.

“Games like this, where you feel like the universe is against you, the puck’s just not working well for you, it’s part of life,” he said. “I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings before. And it’s part of the playoffs, too. I’m sure I will feel like this again at some point.

“I hope I get to feel this again at some point if we get on a stretch, here. The takeaway from tonight is to wash it out. I know who I am, I know my game and I am going to get back to work.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024. 

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