Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Ty Conklin makes a glove save on a shot during the NHL Winter Classic outdoor hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Duprey
PHILADELPHIA - Much has been said and written about Evgeni Malkin's superb play when Sidney Crosby went down with injury this season.
But it also should not be forgotten that the Pittsburgh Penguins, nearing a Stanley Cup final berth, may not even be here had it not been for how Ty Conklin stepped in for the injured Marc-Andre Fleury this season.
"Him and Gino, it was probably a coin flip to see who is our MVP this year," defenceman Brooks Orpik said after Tuesday's pre-game skate. "Without one of those two guys, we probably would have not made the playoffs. They were instrumental."
Given Fleury's standout play since coming back from his high ankle injury in late February, it seems somewhat absurd now to even think that some people were questioning whether the Penguins shouldn't simply stick with Conklin as their No. 1 man. Head coach Michel Therrien did not simply hand the job back to Fleury, however.
"There was a battle for the net between Fleury and Conklin and I believe Marc-Andre won that battle," said Therrien. "But Conklin did so much for the team, he deserves respect for that."
The 32-year-old Conklin doesn't begrudge the decision.
"Flower's been as good as anybody in the league in these playoffs, if you ask me," Conklin said. "He's made every big save he's had to make. Since he came back from his injury, off hand I can't think of a goalie in the NHL that's been better than him. ...
"Certainly, everybody wants to play at this time of year. But the way Marc is playing, it's tough to rationalize anyone else playing. It's been fun to watch him."
Fleury and Conklin have forged a strong relationship, the two sharing conversations between periods and before games. They're good friends with No. 3 Dany Sabourin as well.
"Flower is an easy-going kid," said Conklin. "All three of us get along. It makes for a comfortable work environment."
The 23-year-old Fleury, who has looked every bit the franchise goalie Pittsburgh thought it was drafting first overall in 2003, may have benefited from being pushed for the first time in his young NHL career by another goalie threatening to take the No. 1 job.
"Ty did a tremendous job," said Fleury. "He came in and right away was great in net. It's a big part we stayed on top in the standings because of the way he played. As for me, it was good to be able to watch him. I think I learned some tips from him."
When Fleury went down in early December, later to be joined on the sidelines in January by Crosby, some people wondered whether the Penguins could avoid a slide out of a playoff spot. That's when Malkin played like a man possessed and Conklin rediscovered a form that had once made him the No. 1 goalie in Edmonton.
"What an incredible run by Ty," said Penguins GM Ray Shero.
"He was unbelievable for us," said forward Jarkko Ruutu. "Guys in here never forget that. Maybe the outside media, people don't realize it as much, but he's a big part of this team."
Conklin ended up with the second-best save percentage in the NHL at .923. He went 18-8-5 this season, including winning nine in a row from Dec. 20 to Jan. 10.
"He's one of the reasons why we're here today," said Therrien. "I believe home ice is important. We were fighting for that and we were fighting to stay in the playoffs. When we lost Fleury, we could have been in trouble. A guy like Conklin steps in and plays his best hockey of his career. He's got numbers to get recognized as one of the best goalies in the league.
"He surprised me, he surprised his teammates, we rode him and he did a fantastic job."
As Shero watched Conklin stop pucks in the pre-game skate at Wachovia Center on Tuesday morning, he marvelled looking back at what transpired.
"It's a heck of a story which right now kind of flies under the radar but looking back, where are we without him?" said Shero, who also pointed out Sabourin's 10 wins. "It's been a great story for Ty to get his career back on track."
Conklin is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1 and given his bounceback year there might be a team or two interested in his services. But he likes the team he's with right now.
"My goal is to make an impression here and play well here and make this organization want me," said Conklin. "I enjoy playing here. This is as fun of a locker-room you can be in. It's a talented locker-room. It's a joy going to work every day. But all that stuff will get sorted out at the end of the year."