PITTSBURGH – Patrick Lalime saved them in 1997. Three years later, it was Ron Tugnutt. In 2001, it was Johan Hedberg.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a fast-growing history of finding goalies who wind up saving a season for them, and Ty Conklin is the latest.
Cast off by three teams in two years, Conklin was signed to be a minor league goalie who would play with Pittsburgh only if the unexpected developed. Only this No. 3 goalie is playing like a No. 1 star.
The 31-year-old Conklin got his chance when starter Marc-Andre Fleury sprained an ankle Dec. 6, an injury that has sidelined him since then. Without their 40-game winner from last season, the Penguins – stuck at the bottom of the Atlantic Division much of the season – looked to be in big trouble.
Instead, they are riding a second sustained mid-season hot streak in two seasons, winning nine of 10 and 10 of 12 to climb back to the top of the division. Last year, a similar stretch of 14 wins in 16 games eventually got them into the playoffs.
What no one anticipated was Conklin would be the major reason for the turnaround. He has yet to lose in regulation, going 10-0-1, and his 1.72 goals-against average and .949 save percentage would lead the league if he had played enough games to qualify.
“He’s just been fantastic,” defenceman Ryan Whitney said Wednesday. “You can’t say anything else.”
Even if the Penguins are saying much more. Sidney Crosby calls him a difference maker. Coach Michel Therrien said Conklin “is playing at a level that gives us a chance to win every night.”
And this is a goalie any NHL team could have signed during the off-season or, later, claimed on waivers?
“It’s only been 10 games, 11 games, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” Conklin said. “But it’s been nice to get the opportunity this year, certainly.”
Conklin started briefly at Edmonton in 2003-04, but played only 34 games during the following three seasons for the Oilers, Blue Jackets and Sabres. The Penguins signed him on assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher’s recommendation after he appeared in only 16 NHL games last season.
When Conklin was recalled following Fleury’s injury, the idea was to play him occasionally when Dany Sabourin needed a rest.
But Conklin outplayed him from the start, and Sabourin hasn’t been in net since Dec. 21. Sabourin could get a start when Pittsburgh plays three times in four days beginning with Friday night’s game against Tampa Bay.
“It’s a whole team thing, really,” Conklin said. “Everybody is playing well and you just want to continue to stay confident and continue to do the things that made you successful in the first place.”
No doubt it has helped Conklin that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are equally hot, with Malkin getting 10 goals and three assists in his last 10 games and Crosby accumulating 16 points over that period.
Still, Conklin has allowed one or no goals six times during his 11-game stretch and only once has permitted more than two goals, during a 4-3 overtime victory over Washington on Dec. 27.
Conklin has greatly helped the Penguins offence because he is a goalie who is also a playmaker. He likes to roam far out of the net to move the puck or make a play, yet is seldom caught out of position.
Such a goalie is a major asset to a young, fast team like Pittsburgh that loves to score on odd-man rushes out of its own zone.
With their offence opening up, the Penguins have allowed 35 shots or more in five of their last six games, yet Conklin has played so well that their only loss was a 3-2 shootout defeat to Atlanta on Saturday.
“The number of shots hasn’t been very indicative of the quality chances we’ve been giving up – we’re really not giving up a whole lot,” Conklin said. “That always ends up playing in the goalie’s favour.”
The Penguins played similarly when Lalime went 14-0-2 at the start of his career in 1996-97. When Tugnutt made 70 saves in a five-overtime game against Philadelphia and had a .945 save percentage during the 2000 playoffs. And when Hedberg, a rookie who played only nine regular season games, beat star goalies Olaf Kolzig and Dominik Hasek in successive playoff rounds in 2001.
With Fleury’s return date still uncertain – he is fighting to come back from the dreaded high ankle sprain – Conklin figures to stay in net for an extended period.
“The goalie is in the position where sometimes you can have a solid footprint on the game,” Conklin said. “What makes everything a lot easier is just knowing you’re going to get some starts. But you have to keep playing well for that opportunity to be there.”