Penguins owe Conklin big time
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In a Post-Gazette highly scientific online poll last week, 34 percent of the respondents said Penguins goaltender Ty Conklin should get at least one start in the playoff series against Ottawa.
This was after Penguins coach Michel Therrien had called Marc-Andre Fleury the best goalie in the NHL, after Fleury had done a pretty fair imitation of Ken Dryden and stoned the Senators in Games 1 and 2, after Fleury had gone 10-2-1 to end the regular season.
It's too bad Conklin missed the survey.
He can use all the good laughs he can get these days.
"I don't think too many people are calling for me anymore," Conklin said yesterday at Mellon Arena after the Penguins concluded preparations for their second-round playoff opener against the New York Rangers tonight.
"I don't think you can argue for anybody over [Fleury] now, much less me. He's just playing very, very well."
It should be pointed out that Fleury and the other Penguins are getting their chance to shine in this postseason because of Conklin. He saved their season after Fleury went down with his high ankle sprain in Calgary Dec. 6. The Penguins would not have made the playoffs if Conklin hadn't stepped up and played so well. He won his first nine starts. He was 16-4-2 at one point. He was the team's best player not named Evgeni Malkin when Sidney Crosby also was out with a high ankle sprain.
Many Penguins fans -- a lot more than the 34 percent from the PG poll -- thought Therrien should have stuck with Conklin after Fleury returned. They'll always argue the competition was fixed from the start. Conklin is 32 and carries a horrible label -- career journeyman. Fleury is 23 and is a former No. 1 overall draft choice.
The fix had to be in, right?
Not necessarily, Conklin said.
"The coach said he was going to go with the guy who played better. I believed him. Flower played better than I did. It's not like he was handed anything. He played well to get the job."
Again, give Conklin much credit.
It's not so much that Fleury studied Conklin's technique while he was hurt and learned how to square up to the puck better and do a better job controlling rebounds. "You talk about labels? I heard the talk about Flower's rebound control," Conklin said. "I don't buy it. I think he's really good at it. ... You know, as goaltenders, we have to trust our defensemen. We know they're going to clear their guys away. That's why you'll see us give up one shot, but we don't give up two."
No, this is about more than Fleury stealing tips from Conklin's technique. The best way Conklin helped Fleury was by providing stiff competition. For the first time in his career, Fleury had to fight for his job. Clearly, it brought out his best, not just in the final month of the regular season, but in the four-game sweep of Ottawa when he stopped 107 of 112 shots.
"It's been fun to watch him," Conklin said. "He's really playing the puck well. He's not making any mistakes with the puck. You're seeing that every night. He's been sharp every night. It's hard to do it every night."
Somewhat sadly, it has made Conklin largely irrelevant. He has worked hard to stay sharp and be ready, down to being able to match his playoff beard against anybody's on the team. But it is difficult, he concedes. He tries to treat practice like a game, but -- as A.I. himself, Allen Iverson, would tell you -- there's nothing even remotely similar between the two. What Conklin sees in practice isn't the same as what Fleury will see tonight when Rangers pest Sean Avery starts hanging out in front of his net and Jaromir Jagr begins firing pucks in his direction.
The situation also has to make Conklin a bit uncomfortable. On one hand, he desperately wants to play. "Now, more than ever. ... Everybody wants to play. I'm no different." On the other, he knows he won't play unless Fleury gets hurt or has a couple of bad games. "I don't want to play that way. We're all in this together. We all pull for each other. I'm pulling for Flower to do well."
Conklin almost certainly has done his best work for the Penguins already.
That's OK, though.
Conklin doesn't have to play a second in the playoffs to have a prominent place in Penguins lore.
There would be no playoffs without him.
First Published April 25, 2008 12:00 am