June 13th, 2024

Edmonton Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner’s play is the biggest uncertainty in the Stanley Cup Final

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on June 7, 2024.

A Dallas Stars shot hits Edmonton Oilers defenseman Brett Kulak (27) as Kulak helps goalie Stuart Skinner (74) defend the net against pressure from the Stars' Jason Robertson, center, during the first period of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Friday, May 31, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) – Stuart Skinner has taken to reading books as a way of taking his mind off the sport of hockey and his job as an NHL goaltender of getting in front of frozen rubber disks fired at him at 90-plus mph.

“Recently I’ve been reading “˜Lord of the Rings,'” Skinner said. “That has not helped me with how to stop the puck.”

Something has, enough to backstop the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final against the Florida Panthers.

After three rounds of playoffs in which he has been at times unplayable to the point of being pulled and at other times nearly unbeatable, Skinner is the biggest question mark going into the series that starts Saturday night.

“My job’s simple just because I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I’ve just got to keep the puck out of the net and do my very best to do that,” Skinner said Friday. “That’s the pressure that I take on is just being able to do my job at a very high level.”

Skinner has been lately, specifically since being yanked and replaced by journeyman backup Calvin Pickard during the second round against Vancouver. Upon returning, he has gone 6-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.

Before that? Skinner had a 3.23 goals-against average and an .877 save percentage, and the Oilers were largely winning in spite of him.

“To have the mental strength to be able to bounce back and kind of put a bad game or a bad goal in the rearview mirror takes a lot,” said Florida backup Anthony Stolarz, who had a very brief stint in Edmonton in 2019 as part of his rollercoaster career. “You have to admire the way he’s been able to do that.”

Skinner has an admirer in Panthers starter Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender and his latest challenge to try to outduel as he he did Dallas’ Jake Oettinger in the Western Conference final.

“He’s a good goalie,” Bobrovsky said. “You’re not going to make the final if you’re a bad goalie. He’s a good positional goalie and I think he’s very composed and he has a good mind.”

It is a mind that has endured some hardships along the way this season. If you think his early playoff numbers were bad, they were even worse to start the season: six losses in his first eight games, a 3.88 goals-against average and an .854 save percentage.

After being an All-Star in 2023 and the top rookie goalie in his first season in the league, Skinner got the job in the fall amid his struggles when the team decided to put Jack Campbell on waivers and send him to the minors.

“Certainly we believed in Stuart Skinner,” general manager Ken Holland said. “I think he’s one of the really good top young netminders in the game, and he took it from there.”

Skinner won 35 of his 51 appearances the rest of the way to clinch a playoff spot with ease.

“There hasn’t been very many poor performances, and when there has been a poor performance, he’s always responded,” coach Kris Knoblauch said.

Handling the ups and downs taught Skinner a couple of things: namely that his teammates have his back and his internal ability to withstand adversity is better than he realized.

“I’ve been able to bounce back and find myself, and finding that resiliency in myself is obviously something that I’m very proud of,” Skinner said. “But it also shows just myself that I’m stronger than maybe that I think I am. And I think that’s great, especially going into where we are now.”

Where he is now is firmly in the spotlight as the hometown boy who grew up an Oilers fan four wins from bringing the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993. That drought predates him being born in “˜98, and it’s not the kind of pressure he wants on his shoulders at the most important moment of his career.

But one thing Skinner made clear when he held court on Cup final media day is that he’s not overwhelmed by the moment, having already played 123 games in the regular season and 28 more in the playoffs. So nervous before his NHL debut that he could barely consume food, he’s approaching this as just another series.

“It’s the same as the other rounds that we’ve played; it’s another round to try to win four games,” Skinner said. “I’ll definitely be able to eat.”

___

AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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