A journeyman's ultimate journey: Conklin return a monthlong sensation in goal
In the minutes leading up to one of his most watched starts of the season -- the Winter Classic on New Year's Day -- Ty Conklin stays loose by kicking a soccer ball around.
Penguins goalie Ty Conklin
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Ty Conklin has been one of the NHL's hottest commodities since being recalled from the minors in early December after a high-ankle sprain injury to starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Conklin won his first nine starts and wrapped up a sensational monthlong stretch with a 10-1-2 record that has helped move the Penguins into second place in the tight Atlantic Division standings.
Although he has dropped his past two decisions (one a shootout, which is listed as a tie in NHL statistics), Conklin has been nearly invincible in the net since being summoned from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
He has compiled a 1.82 goals-against average in 14 games for the Penguins, including a .946 save percentage and two shutouts -- the same total he had logged in 76 previous NHL games.
"I don't think any goalie in the league has played as good as Ty has in the last month or so," goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said.
Conklin, 31, puts the word journey into journeyman.
He was born in Eagle River, Alaska, a suburb of Anchorage. In addition to playing for Edmonton, Columbus and Buffalo in the NHL, he has played for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats,
the Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams in the German Elite League, and the Hamilton Bulldogs, Hartford Wolf Pack, Syracuse Crunch and Baby Penguins in the AHL.
Conklin also led Team USA to a bronze medal at the 2004 Ice Hockey Federation World Championships en route to earning best goaltender honors.
Assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher convinced general manager Ray Shero to sign Conklin as a free agent in July.
He agreed to a one-year, two-way contract and was ticketed to stay in the minors all season, barring an injury to Fleury or backup Dany Sabourin.
"I give Ty a lot of credit," Fletcher said. "He had a tough season last year and a lot of guys won't look in the mirror and realize they have to take a step backward in order to get back to where they want to go. It's pretty impressive that he wanted to do that.
"Since he's been up here, he's been playing great, and you can see the confidence the players have in him when he's in the net. It's not only been a nice story for Ty, it's been a great gain for our club."
Conklin's break came last month when Fleury fell awkwardly outside the crease in a Dec. 6 game against Calgary. Conklin, 11-7 with a 2.21 goals-against average at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, was promoted to the Penguins the next day.
Although his pay jumped from $100,000 to $500,000, Conklin was expected to be the backup. But Sabourin struggled as the starter and Conklin took over, compiling a 1.47 GAA in his 10 victories.
Sabourin, who also is being paid $500,000, has made only three starts since Dec. 21. He is 8-8-1 with a 2.69 GAA and was rocked for four goals on 13 shots Monday by the Washington Capitals before giving way to Conklin in what turned out to be a 6-5 shootout loss.
But Conklin has enjoyed his memorable run, which began Dec. 20 with a victory at Boston.
"It's always fun when you're winning games, but I don't want to get too far ahead of myself," he said.
Conklin, expected to make his first start in six days tonight in Philadelphia, still has his share of doubters. Only once in his NHL career has he played in more than 18 games in a season, going 17-14-4 in 38 appearances with Edmonton in 2003-04.
He is taking a cautious approach now that reigning league MVP Sidney Crosby is out six to eight weeks with a high ankle sprain.
"I think everyone has to raise the level of their games while Sid's out, including me," Conklin said.
Conklin is the latest backup goalie to enjoy a starring role with the Penguins.
In 1996-97, Patrick Lalime was called up from the AHL and compiled a league-record 14-0-2 mark to start his NHL career.
In 1999-2000, veteran Ron Tugnutt, acquired in a deadline trade for Tom Barrasso, led all goaltenders with a .945 save percentage in the playoffs.
A year later, career minor-leaguer Johan Hedberg had a .911 save percentage and 2.30 GAA in the postseason.
Defenseman Ryan Whitney has enjoyed Conklin's quick start.
"To see a guy come in and dominate and do what he's done, when nobody expected it, has been pretty special," Whitney said.
Conklin's stick-handling skills are above average and he hasn't had much trouble keeping the puck out of the net, allowing just 24 goals on 441 shots.
"There isn't much strategy to discuss with Ty when he's playing like he's been," said Meloche. "You just kind of tap him on the back, and say, 'Don't change what you're doing.' "
Before this season, Conklin was best known for his gaffe in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
After relieving injured Edmonton starter Dwayne Roloson late in the third period of a 4-4 game, Conklin botched an exchange with teammate Jason Smith behind the net. The puck deflected off Smith's stick, and Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour scored the winning goal from in front.
Conklin didn't play for the Oilers again. He was a combined 6-17-5 while shuffling between Buffalo, Columbus and Syracuse last year.
Signing with the Penguins was a fresh start.
"I just wanted to make sure that I played well in the minors, and if an opportunity did present itself to play in the NHL, I was ready for it," Conklin said. "All of this other stuff has been a real bonus."
Although he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a senior at New Hampshire in 2000-01, Conklin was an undrafted free agent. Even then, the Penguins had an interest in signing him.
"But we didn't have any money," Meloche said, "and we got outbid by Edmonton."
Seven years later, Conklin has turned out to be one of the best bargains in the NHL.
"He's done a great job for us," coach Michel Therrien said.
Once Fleury is healthy, Therrien will be forced to make a decision: Does he stick with Conklin if he's still playing well, or does he go back to Fleury, who won 40 games last season?
"I can't control who plays or how much I play," Conklin said. "All I can control is how well I play."
First Published January 24, 2008 12:00 am