The past month has been quite an odyssey for Ty Conklin. Next up, he will be framed by the Penguins' net and television screens across the country for tomorrow's Winter Classic outdoor game against the Sabres in Buffalo, N.Y.
Less than a month ago, it looked as if the extent of Conklin's latest trip to the NHL would consist of a long, cross-continent trip to Vancouver that included delays and getting stuck overnight to fulfill an emergency recall and back up Dany Sabourin in a Dec. 8 game before heading back to the minor leagues.
Then the Penguins learned that No. 1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury would be out roughly a quarter of the season with a high ankle sprain, and Conklin became the long-term backup.
Now Conklin is getting regular starting assignments from coach Michel Therrien, who said he will stick with Conklin for the Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Conklin, 31, is no wide-eyed youngster. He has played in 81 NHL games, including five last season with Buffalo.
He's not gloating over his 4-0 record the past 11 days.
"We've gotten a couple wins because the team's been playing well," Conklin said after stopping 26 shots to shut out the Sabres, 2-0, Saturday night at Mellon Arena. That game lowered his goals-against average to 2.71 and raised his save percentage to .912. That victory goes with a shootout win and an overtime win.
- Who: Penguins vs. Sabres.
- What: Winter Classic 2008, an outdoor hockey game.
- When: 1:20 p.m.
- Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo, N.Y.
- TV: WPXI.
Conklin, who grew up in Alaska, wasn't drafted but had a strong college career at New Hampshire. Most of his pro career, he has been the definition of a journeyman, with his biggest season coming in 2003-04, when he played 38 games for Edmonton -- including the Heritage Classic outdoor game.
The Penguins prefer to define him by his past few weeks -- the period in relief when he gave up three goals on 15 shots in a Dec. 11 blowout loss at Philadelphia in his Penguins debut notwithstanding.
"He's playing really well," Therrien said. "He's playing with confidence, and the team's playing with confidence when he's in there. He's controlling his rebounds really well and moving the puck to help the defensemen."
Conklin makes a fair amount of saves by blocking the puck with his body, then grabbing it with his glove.
"That's just the way I play," he said. "If the puck's not sticking to me, it's a pretty good indication I'm out of position."
He is comfortable moving the puck up to the defensemen. Fleury and Sabourin are not as accomplished in that area.
"Conklin plays the puck, and it's much easier for the defensemen because it's like having another defenseman out there," defenseman Sergei Gonchar said, adding that the Penguins, who didn't practice yesterday, have made minor changes to their system with a puck-handling goaltender.
"We're all getting used to each other -- he gets used to us, and we get used to him. I'm sure we can improve on that, and then it makes the game easier for everybody. It's just a little adjustment, but it's a good adjustment."
They'll continue to work on that chemistry on the chilly stage tomorrow in Buffalo.
Conklin is one of three Penguins who have played in a high-level outdoor game. Winger Georges Laraque was a teammate of Conklin's with Edmonton for the Heritage Classic. Forward Adam Hall played for Michigan State when the Spartans played Michigan outdoors in 2001.
Conklin doesn't figure playing in the Heritage Classic, where he took the loss as Montreal won, 4-3, gives him an edge tomorrow.
"I really don't think so," he said. "There is no such thing as an advantage in an outdoor game. It's a lot different."
That's mostly because of the weather. In the Edmonton game, the temperature was around zero, with a wind chill of about minus-20.
"It was cold in Edmonton. That was the biggest thing for me," said Conklin, who, as the starting goaltender, will be the only Penguins player who can't get regular relief from the heated bench.
It's not supposed to be that severe tomorrow in Buffalo, where temperatures are forecast in the 20s, but Conklin still predicts it will be difficult for him and all the players to prepare for the conditions.
"A good warmup would be a warm locker room," Conklin said.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721. First Published December 31, 2007 5:00 AM