|Ty Conklin became the key player for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the absence of injured goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Ty Conklin highlight video|
"I knew I'd be starting the season in (AHL) Wilkes-Barre, but really wasn't sure beyond that," Conklin told NHL.com. "I just wanted to make sure I had a good start to the year and played well. If an opportunity came up, I wanted to be ready for it."
Not only did the opportunity arise, Conklin became the key cog in the absence of injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who was felled by a high ankle sprain, and the inconsistent play of then-backup Dany Sabourin.
Following his call-up from the American Hockey League, Conklin strung together nine-straight victories while sporting a 1.55 goals-against average and .952 save percentage from Dec. 20 through Jan. 10.
Not only did it give the 31-year-old Conklin a permanent spot on the Penguins' roster, but it provided the necessary proof that, when given the opportunity, he could shine in this League.
"I was hoping to get a chance to play some games and felt that I was at the point in my career where I had to prove I could play in this League,” Conklin admitted. "I had to show that I belonged here, so whatever pressure I had, I put on myself."
Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien believes Conklin, who has been nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, is the feel-good story of the season in Pittsburgh.
"He started out in the minors and winds up playing a huge role for us after we lost our starter," Therrien said. "Ty is definitely one of the reasons why we're still in the race for first place (in the Eastern Conference). He took full advantage of the opportunity and has played great."
Fleury, who missed 36 games before returning Feb. 28, was relieved Conklin was able to step in and perform so well in his absence.
"He did a great job, and the fact he had some previous experience in the League really helped," Fleury said. "Ty's the reason the team is where it's at right now. He's been tremendous and has been a great teammate."
Conklin currently is 18-8-5 with a 2.51 goals-against average, a League-high .923 save percentage and two shutouts in 32 games. The Penguins are tops in both the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division.
Prior to joining the Penguins this winter, he had appeared in just 76 NHL games with Edmonton, Columbus and Buffalo during six seasons, winning 30 games.
"I never really viewed it as my chance to become a No. 1 goalie in Pittsburgh," Conklin said. "The team was playing well and we started winning some games and I was just playing a part in that. It was nice to finally get a chance to play regularly and we got on a little roll."
Conklin, who was 11-7 with a 2.21 GAA and .919 save percentage in 18 AHL games to start the 2007-08 season, never will forget his 36-save, 2-1 shootout victory against the Sabres that became one of the main storylines of the NHL Winter Classic, the outdoor game played in Orchard Park, N.Y., before an NHL-record 71,217 fans on New Year's Day.
That victory avenged Conklin's other outdoor start, a 4-3 setback against Montreal as a member of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2003 Heritage Classic, a game played before 51,167 at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.
"Anytime you're playing outside, it's going to be pretty memorable," Conklin said. "I think the whole thing went off without a hitch, and everything, even the snowfall, made for a very cool event. I feel it was a great experience for the players, coaches and fans."
Conklin went undrafted despite numerous honors in the United States Hockey League with the Green Bay Gamblers and in college at the University of New Hampshire.
The Oilers signed Conklin in the summer of 2001 to challenge for the backup role, but he spent the majority of his time with the Hamilton Bulldogs, an American Hockey League affiliate shared by the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. Conklin led the Bulldogs to within one win of the Calder Cup championship in 2003.
In 2003-04, he helped the United States to a bronze medal at the 2004 World Championships in the Czech Republic, compiling a 4-0-1 record, a 2.14 GAA and one shutout.
Conklin admits he wasn't the biggest hockey fan while growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, but he always enjoyed playing one-on-one with his brother, Brice, in the basement of their home.
"I grew up in a pretty All-American town, to be honest, and I think the fact it was Alaska made it unique," Conklin said. "I really didn't watch a lot of hockey growing up, but was a Chicago sports fan. I began to pick up hockey when I was 8, playing in recreation leagues, and my brother kind of got me hooked on goaltending because he always wanted to be the shooter. So I wound up playing the net and got pretty good, so I stuck with it."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.