Conklin or Markkanen? For Oilers, it's all mental
While large scrums of reporters, photographers and camera operators formed around starting netminder Dwayne Roloson and the rest of the Oilers, the two backups more often than not were still on the ice working out with the rest of the Edmonton scrubs.
Now, one of these shadow goalies will be asked to do the improbable -- step from obscurity to win four Stanley Cup finals games in the wake of a season-ending injury to Roloson late in Game 1.
Strip away their statistics and the debate over their technical merits, and the final question is, which of the two is deemed mentally strong enough to accept the challenge?
After all, for weeks after the acquisition of Roloson from Minnesota, coach Craig MacTavish and GM Kevin Lowe have been saying that Roloson represented the extra saves the team needed to have success, saves neither Markkanen nor Conklin could provide consistently.
The more praise there has been for Roloson during the Oilers' playoff run, the more it reinforced how unappetizing the alternatives had been.
Now, one of those alternatives will be asked to put that behind him and become a hero.
"It's a big challenge for either one of us. I, of course, look at it kind of like a second chance, too," Markkanen said Tuesday. "I played a lot early in the season, and there's not many guys going to have a chance to play in the Stanley Cup final. Hopefully, I get that chance."
On this day, the two backups, who have played a total of 65:36 since Roloson was acquired at the March 9 trade deadline, were the ones cocooned by dozens of reporters.
"Certainly, it's been a bit of a rocky season," Conklin added. "But it is a chance to kind of finish what we had hoped, or the way we looked at the season starting, it was the two of us."
Roloson's season came to a dramatic end with 5:36 left in the third period of Monday's Game 1. With the score tied at 4, the 36-year-old was pinned against the right post in a collision with Edmonton defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron and Carolina forward Andrew Ladd. He suffered a severe injury to his MCL and an elbow injury.
Roloson was replaced by Conklin, who had not played since the final regular-season game April 17. Inexplicably, the native of Anchorage, Alaska, ventured behind the Oilers net to stop a last-minute shoot-in. Then, compounding his initial mental breakdown, Conklin's blind, backhand clearing attempt glanced off Oilers defenseman Jason Smith and ended up on Rod Brind'Amour's stick. The Canes captain deposited the puck in the open net to give the Canes a stunning victory.
"Let's not turn that play into some monumental thing," Conklin said Tuesday. "It's a play that obviously, maybe I would feel better if it was a one-timer from the hash marks or something. But the puck went in and we lost the game."
Now, MacTavish is faced with the unenviable task of naming a starting netminder for Game 2 on Wednesday night from a pair that long has been deemed inadequate.
Does he return to tightly wound Conklin, who was named goalie of the tournament at the World Championship as the United States won a surprise bronze medal two years ago but whose game went sideways this season?
Or does he tab Markkanen, who was terrific in the Russian league last year but hasn't played since March 1, when he gave up three goals on 10 shots and was yanked after the second period in a 4-2 loss to lowly St. Louis?
"You never win a Stanley Cup without overcoming some adversity along the way, and so far to this point, we haven't had to overcome a lot," said MacTavish, who would not identify his starter. "This is our test right now."
Most observers believe it will be 31-year-old Markkanen.
"I think it's psychological. You have to get your team believing," said former NHL netminder John Garrett, now a broadcast analyst. "And they'll all come out and say, 'Well, we believe in this guy, we believe in that guy, we've got confidence in both of them.' But Ty let in the bad goal to end the game the other night. Jussi has had stretches this year where he's been very good.
"Neither one could stretch 10 games together," Garrett added. "But Jussi could play five real good ones. And that's all they need now. They only need four real good ones. So I would think Jussi would be the guy."
Former NHL coach Pierre McGuire likewise believes Markkanen makes the most sense as the Game 2 starter, figuring the key is in reinforcing to whichever goaltender is the starter that he doesn't have to win the game by himself, just don't lose it.
One of Roloson's strengths this spring has been his ability to control rebounds, and McGuire figures Markkanen is better technically than 30-year-old Conklin, which would mean less stress on the Edmonton defense.
Kelly Hrudey, another former netminder and a national television analyst in Canada, said there should be no debate.
"Not even a question -- Markkanen. And I gain no satisfaction in saying that. I do really feel horribly for Ty Conklin," Hrudey said. "It's such a traumatic thing that he's gone through and the way in which he let in that goal last night after the season that he's had. It's going to be a real challenge, if you ask me, for him to continue a National Hockey League career. It's going to be tough."
In 37 Oilers games this season, Markkanen was 15-12 with a 3.13 goals-against average and .880 save percentage. Conklin was 8-5 with a 2.80 GAA and .880 save percentage.
"Well, they can say, obviously, whatever they want, and the numbers speak for themselves," Markkanen said. "But the main thing is we are here and we're here and it's no time to look [to the] past. You've got to focus on the next game, whatever happens, and you win or lose, you just go for the next game."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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