- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- For 37 minutes or so, the Oilers couldn't have asked for anything more out of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Hurricanes.
They had a 3-0 lead, which included the first successful penalty shot in Cup finals history (scored by Chris Pronger). They were winning every physical battle. And, they were keeping the Hurricanes on the far edges of the rink.
The next 23 minutes, however, were sheer horror for the Oilers, who lost the game 5-4 and their star stopper, Dwayne Roloson, who suffered a knee injury as a result of a collision with Canes rookie Andrew Ladd at 14:06 of the third period.
When asked about his goalie after the game, Oilers coach Craig MacTavish delivered the painful news: "The goalie's not good," MacTavish said. "He won't be back in the series." Roloson was unavailable for comment after the game.
OK, Oilers fans, say it with me ... OUCH! Well, you might want to use another word. It would be the right word, but we can't use it here.
The 36-year-old Roloson has started all but one game since arriving from Minnesota just a day before the March 9 trade deadline. This postseason, he's been the backbone of the Oilers' stunning run. He's given his teammates the confidence to play their game in front of him. In 17 playoff games, Roloson was 12-5 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. His numbers made him a strong candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Back in March, the Oilers traded a first-round pick in the upcoming draft because they were so desperate for a consistent goaltender. Roloson had been that and more.
Now, he's gone.
Enter Ty Conklin, who hadn't played since getting the start for the club's meaningless regular-season finale (April 17) against the Avalanche. Thrust into an incredibly difficult situation, Conklin responded by making a nice stop on Hurricanes winger Justin Williams with just 2:37 left in regulation.
Then, on a seemingly harmless play behind the net, Conklin's rust proved fatal for his team. The Alaska-born goalie stopped the puck on the backboards and looked to make a clearing pass. But, by his admission, he held on to the puck too long. Oilers captain Jason Smith came to Conklin's aid. In an instant, there was a miscommunication between goalie and defenseman. The puck caromed off the backhand side of Smith's stick and toward the front of the net. At the same time, opportunistic Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour arrived to tuck the loose puck into the open net with just 31.1 seconds left in regulation.
"I didn't make the play quickly," Conklin said. "It's not a mistake that I think I would normally make."
Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward (he certainly doesn't play like a 22-year-old kid) made the fluke goal stand up with a few dazzling saves in the final seconds.
Now, the stunned Oilers must turn to journeymen goalies Conklin and/or Jussi Markkanen. Or, I should say, return to Conklin and Markkanen. After all, the two goalies did share the crease (along with the since-waived Mike Morrison) for most of the season.
MacTavish believes his team will rally around either of his two remaining goalies.
"We've got a resilient group in that locker room," MacTavish said. "It's a tight-knit group. We'll rally around either Jussi or Ty, whoever we start in the next game and we'll play a more intelligent game. I have no question whatsoever about how we'll react to this."
If the Oilers want to parade a Stanley Cup down Whyte Avenue, they have no choice but to rally around Conklin or Markkanen. MacTavish indicated after the game that he would make a decision about his starting goalie for Game 2 at some time Tuesday.
Markkanen, who has been rotating with Conklin as the club's backup, was philosophical about the possibility of playing in Game 2.
"I've haven't played in since forever," Markkanen joked. "But really, it doesn't matter. I have to be ready. If the coach calls your name, you have to be ready to go."
Whoever gets the start, the Oilers will want to play like they did in that first 37 minutes. To a man, they thought they got away from their game. They thought they foolishly began trading chances with the Canes. Repeatedly, they told the media they had to tighten things up in Game 2.
"It opened up too much," Oilers center Jarret Stoll said. "That's not the way we want it. We gave them too much time and space to make things happen. And they took advantage of it."
On Wednesday, the Oilers will have to be very stingy on defense. They won't have their security blanket in goal.
Suddenly, after an amazing playoff run, the Oilers find themselves back where they were on March 7, the day before the got Roloson. They'll have to rely on a pair of inconsistent goalies.
Can one of them get hot? Stranger things have happened. But, just four wins from the Stanley Cup, the Oilers' fun ride has gone dangerously off course.