The hero and the potential goat sat by side late Tuesday in the Hall of Fame Room at Rogers Place. To one side were replicas of the Oilers’ five Stanley Cups. On the other, a display case full of artifacts from the club’s rich history.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored twice, including the winner, in Edmonton’s 5-3 victory over Calgary in Game 4 of the second-round playoff series. He was the hero. Mike Smith, the 40-year-old net minder, allowed a horrific goal. He would have had horns like a ram had Nugent-Hopkins not bailed him out.
The Oilers held a 3-0 lead in the second period but the Flames battled back to within 3-2. Midway through the third, Calgary defenceman Rasmus Andersson flipped a puck toward Smith from 132 feet away. That is essentially two-thirds the length of the ice surface.
It went right past him with no attempt made to stop it and the game was suddenly tied 3-3. Most of the crowd jammed into the arena – all but the Flames fans – gasped. They could not believe what they had just seen.
Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton’s longest-serving player at 11 years, jammed a puck in with 3:27 remaining to break the tie. After that, Evander Kane contributed an empty-netter and the Oilers now enjoy a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven showdown with Game 5 in Calgary on Thursday.
“I can laugh now, right,” Smith said afterward. On the street outside fans chanted “We Want the Cup.”
“[Until now] I don’t think there has been a time in my career where I have lost a puck or where I had no idea where it went,” Smith said. “When something like that happens it is unusual. It is not a very good feeling personally but this group has never wavered from mistakes during a game through the course of this season. No one hit the panic button.”
The first postseason Battle of Alberta in 31 years has provided too many thrills to mention. It is almost too bad that, one way or another, it will end soon. Why not let the arch-enemies play a best-of-25? Let Connor McDavid tap-dance around defenders and baffle them with ballet moves for a while longer. Let Evander Kane keep piling up goals like nobody’s business. Let Matthew Tkachuk stir things up indefinitely. Let Smith and his counterpart in Calgary, Jacob Markstrom, alternately make stupendous saves and then have unimaginable gaffes.
Markstrom, one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, came out of his net and then accidentally flipped a puck to Nugent-Hopkins 21 seconds into Tuesday’s game. The latter quickly slapped it over Markstrom from eight feet out to give Edmonton a 1-0 lead.
Goals by Zach Hyman and Kane increased the margin to 3-0 before Calgary charged back and forged a tie. It felt as though the momentum had drastically changed and then Nugent-Hopkins delivered the most important goal of his long tenure with the Oilers.
“That was unbelievable goal by Ryan at the end there to give us a boost,” Smith said. “We could have easily packed it in after they got that long one on me but we never wavered. We hung in and found a way to win. In the playoffs that’s what you do.”
The Oilers are now one victory away from reaching the Western Conference final for the first time since 2006. If a Game 6 is necessary it will occur in Edmonton on Saturday. If the Flames win, they get another chance to close it out in Calgary next week.
Tuesday’s affair was the first real nailbiter in the series. Each of the teams had spent too many minutes in the penalty box in the first three games. They were far more disciplined this time with each being flagged for three infractions.
It is hard to tell what will transpire in Game 5. It could become a slugfest if the Oilers mount a large lead. It could be a lopsided victory for the now-desperate Flames.
Smith is just grateful that his whopper of an error didn’t end up costing Edmonton the game.
“Obviously you don’t want that to ever happen,” he said. “There are ebbs and flows to a series and they are all learning experiences. Through the course of a game stuff happens. It is never perfect but what matters is how you handle it and battle through the adversity and stick together. We are doing that.
“All you want to do is score one more than the other guys and we did that.”