Stuart Skinner shows what he's capable of when it matters most

In the most important game yet of these playoffs for the Oilers, Stuart Skinner justifies coach Kris Knoblauch's faith in him with one of his best performances.
Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars - Game Five
Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars - Game Five / Matthew Stockman/GettyImages

There has been plenty of criticism surrounding Stuart Skinner (including from ourselves) regarding his ability -- or lack thereof -- to perform well during the playoffs. That there was nothing wrong with his regular season play, but that he repeatedly melted under the bright lights of playoff hockey.

This narrative came about based on Skinner's playoff form last season, when he had all around poor statistics and four times had to be replaced by Jack Campbell. At the time, one excuse/reasoning was that it was his first exposure to the increased intensity of the playoffs.

At the same time, the saying goes that adversity reveals character rather than creates it. That how you respond when the pressure is increased, speaks volumes about what you are truly capable of as a professional athlete.

As such, when Skinner struggled terribly in his first three starts of this season's second round series versus the Vancouver Canucks, the criticism only grew. It wasn't helped, when Calvin Pickard came in to start the next two games, and looked good in between the pipes.

Knoblauch maintains faith in Skinner

However, it is telling that with the season on the line heading into game six versus the Canucks, Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch went back to Skinner. And when his goalie played well, he selected him once for for the winner-takes-all game seven, as the Oilers vanquished their Canadian rivals and advanced to the Western Conference Final.

The 2023 NHL All-Star continued his fine form into the first two games of the Dallas Stars series, although the Oilers only got a 1-1 split. However, when he allowed four goals in game three and the Oilers fell to 2-1 in the series, the doubts returned.

Then, when the Oilers gave up two goals and fell behind 2-0 in less than six minutes during game four, all hell appeared set to break lose. It was at this point that Skinner went into an almost zen-like state, and shut the Stars down for the remainder of the game, which his team came back to win 5-2.

This form continued into Friday night's critical game five back in Dallas, as the Oilers built what would be an insurmountable 3-0 lead. And when the Stars did finally score with just 5:51 remaining in the game, it wasn't Skinner's fault as it came via an excellent tip.

When it was all said and done, Skinner had saved 19 of the 20 shots he faced and took home the game's Second Star. With a complete team effort, the Oilers had secured a 3-1 win and an important 3-2 series lead, with the opportunity to clinch the series at home on Monday night and return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2005-06.

Skinner stifles the Stars

To give some idea of how Skinner has turned it on when it matters most, consider that when Wyatt Johnston scored on Friday night, it ended the longest goal drought for the Stars during these playoffs. The drought lasted just under 109 minutes, which shows the measure of just how well the Oilers and their goalie had performed versus the top seed in the Western Conference.

What really impressed about Skinner's play, is how he managed to remain focused despite not facing many shots early on, with just four by the Stars in the first period. The home side would shoot just another six during the second period, but the Oilers' number one continued to come up big when needed.

Skinner acknowledged how tough it can be when the shots aren't flying at his net, but believes he now has a handle on it. Speaking to the media postgame, he said: "Sometimes it's harder playing in games like that, just trying to do your very best to stay mentally engaged, physically engaged. That's about all you can really do. It's never easy. In my favour (though), I've been able to have a lot of games like that, the way that we play. ... I've had a lot of practice to be good in situations like this."

Killing on the penalty kill

Case in point was when the Edmonton native made a massive stop from Tyler Seguin on the power play late on in the second period, to keep the score at 3-0 to the Oilers. Which leads us to the next point that highlights the excellent play of the goalie (and in fairness the defence as a whole).

Consider that the Oilers have now had 25 consecutive successful penalty kills on the opposition, including making the Stars go 0-for-11 during the Western Conference Final. As a whole, Knoblauch's team leads the NHL with a 93.5 percent success rate in these playoffs.

Returning to Friday night's game specifically, the Oilers coach is well aware of how crucial Skinner was in helping to secure the win. Also speaking to the media postgame, he said: "There were a lot of big saves, especially on the penalty kill where we able to get some really good looks. Stu was just solid. He was square, he was quick. We win 3-1 tonight, and I think that’s a little skewed. I don’t think we were that much better tonight. I think just the fact that Stu made so many big saves tonight, gave us a little bit of cushion and made it look easier than it was for our team, but Stu obviously played a really good game."

Skinner may never totally eradicate the concern among some critics about his form during the playoffs. He could have nine consecutive excellent starts, but then a disastrous tenth would have some folks saying they told us so; such is the life of an NHL goalie.

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Overall though, the 25-year-old continues to display his mental fortitude in how he recovers from any adversity, while growing both as a goalie, a leader and a man. Ultimately, when it matters most he is now stepping up, and should continue to be the Oilers' main man in net for many years to come.

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