Stuart Skinner shows he belongs with outstanding Game 1 performance

When it mattered most, Stuart Skinner stood tall and helped the Edmonton Oilers overcome the favoured Dallas Stars on the road in double overtime.
Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars - Game One
Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars - Game One / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

What. A. Game. Whether you were someone who wanted the Edmonton Oilers or the Dallas Stars to in, there's no denying Thursday night's game one in the Western Conference Final was everything you could want, highlighting just how special and intense playoff hockey can be.

Connor McDavid, Zach Hyman and Leon Draisaitl are understandably getting a lot of the headlines from an Oilers perspective, scoring the three goals which helped their team prevail. While there's still a long way to go of course, the 3-2 double overtime win now at least gives them home-ice advantage.

However, we're here to write about Stuart Skinner, who more than did his bit to help the Oilers win. And perhaps this is also an attempt to give him some credit, after being among his biggest critics.

Playoff doubts

There's no denying there has been a lot of doubt surrounding Skinner, in respect of how he performs during the playoffs. It's no secret he struggled during last year's postseason, as he recorded a .883 save percentage and 3.68 Goals Against Average (GAA) in 12 starts.

In fact it got so bad, that the 25-year-old was replaced by Jack Campbell in four of those games, including the final two which saw the Oilers eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights. The hope was that this was just a case of getting used to his first exposure of playoff hockey, especially for a goalie who has been excellent during the regular season and is a tremendous teammate to boot.

Skinner was a lot better during the first round of this year's playoffs, versus the Los Angeles Kings. However, then the old doubts returned in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks.

In the first three games -- two of which the Oilers lost -- the Edmonton native allowed 12 goals on only 58 shots, resulting in a poor .793 save percentage and 4.41 GAA. As such, Kris Knoblauch took the gamble of giving Calvin Pickard the first two playoff starts of his career, with the backup goalie subsequently justifying the decision.

A successful gamble

However, what's interesting is that with the season on the line -- down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series versus the Canucks -- Knoblauch took another gamble by putting Skinner back in bet. The Oilers coach clearly wanted to find out what he had in his main starter, i.e. how he would react to adversity, in a decision which could have ramifications both in the short and long-term for the goalie position and the team in general.

Skinner responded by helping the Oilers win both elimination games to take the series, with only one of the three combined goals allowed being his fault. However, even this didn't dismiss the doubts entirely, with him facing just 32 combined shots in the two games.

What Oilers fans and media critics alike really needed to see, was how the 2023 NHL All-Star would respond to dealing with a flurry of shots and adversity versus one of the very best teams in the league. Well, we got our answer on Thursday night, in a thrilling game at American Airlines Center.

First, Skinner stopped everything he faced during an opening period when the Oilers were being outplayed by the Stars. This helped give the visitors confidence, as they surged out to a 2-0 lead during the second period.

Skinner deals well with adversity in Dallas

The Stars would respond with two goals of their own, including tying the game with just over three minutes remaining in the third period. In truth Skinner was not responsible for either goal, but still represented adversity that he had to respond positively to.

The adversity continued, with the Stars getting five power play opportunities during the game, compared to just one for the Oilers. (We won't comment as such on the overall performance of the refs, but this comparative statistic alone, tells its own story.) Ultimately though, Skinner was on top of his game, as the Stars went 0-for-5 with the man advantage.

This included overcoming a critical moment which came just 17 seconds into the first overtime period, when McDavid was assessed a double minor for high sticking. It could have been the end for the Oilers, but Skinner and his teammates survived a four-minute spell which felt like a lifetime.

McDavid would finally end the game 32 seconds into the second overtime to give the Oilers a much deserved win, especially under the circumstances. The superstar took home the game's First Star, while Hyman was awarded the Third Star. (Tyler Seguin was given the Second Star.)

As much as there were plenty of other worthy candidates, we would still have given Skinner a Star, for everything he did on the night. He stopped 31 of the 33 shots he faced in 80:32 of action, resulting in a .939 save percentage in arguably the best playoff performance of his career.

Skinner all about the team

As always, Skinner deflected any praise by talking about his teammates, including how they collectively handled McDavid's double minor during the first overtime period. Speaking to the media, he said: "I think the big thing is being able to get kills, but also at the right moment as well. There’s a massive moment obviously at the start of overtime, not only being able to kill not just two minutes, but four minutes, so that’s a huge credit to the guys."

The 2017 third round draft pick is renowned for having an intriguing mindset. Earlier this season, he talked about the privilege of being an NHL goalie -- even to the extent of embracing the negativity from fans and media alike -- while also always looking to improve his game.

This came across, when Skinner was asked about how eventful the playoffs had been in general, and on Thursday night specifically. He said: "For me, I'm just seeing it as another day where we get to go through something that's just a really special experience for all of us. To be able to get a win in double overtime is great for momentum, so being able to keep this momentum going moving forward is going to be massive. But it's very exciting, it's huge to get a win, but we know there's some little things we can do better, be a little bit sharper. So it's another game where we get to look back and grow, and be better the next game."

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There's of course still plenty of hockey to be played in a series which could go either way, with Skinner set to face plenty more adversity. However it ultimately goes though, he at least proved on Thursday night in Dallas, that he has what it takes to belong on the big stage.

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