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Central: Blues' Mason, Conklin are brothers in arms

by Larry Wigge
The pre-game tape St. Louis coach Andy Murray put together before the Blues' Oct. 22 game against the Minnesota Wild was pretty simple. It included one save after another by Blues goaltender Chris Mason from the previous game.

The rub: The Blues lost that last game, 5-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a game in which Mason faced 20 shots in the first period and another 15 in the second. Meanwhile, the Blues managed only 11 shots through two periods.

"My question to the players was this: 'Chris Mason did his job, what about the rest of you?' " Murray explained, knowing he can count on either Mason or Ty Conklin to give the Blues a chance to win every night. "The key thing with our goaltenders is that 'Mase' and 'Conks' come to work hard all the time. They challenge our shooters in practice, forcing them to make good shots."

Every NHL coach would love to have the comfort of having a Martin Brodeur or a Roberto Luongo in goal for 70-80 games a season. But Murray believes he has the next best thing with Mason and Conklin.

Mason put the Blues on his shoulders late last season and led them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs by playing in the final 33 games. He posted an impressive 24-8-6 record down the stretch with five shutouts, a .924 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average.

Conklin? All he's done is register a record of 18-8-5 in Pittsburgh two seasons ago and 25-11-2 last season while helping Pittsburgh and Detroit to the Stanley Cup Final respectively.

"I only know Chris Mason's character from his reputation, but I can say clearly state that without the performance of Evgeni Malkin stepping up after Sidney Crosby got hurt and Ty Conklin filling in for Marc-Andre Fleury we would never had made it to the Final that year. Ty was that good for us," said Chuck Fletcher, current GM of the Minnesota Wild, who was an assistant to GM Ray Shero in Pittsburgh during the Pens' run to the Final in 2008.

I've always maintained that the uplifting nature of goaltending -- make a game-turning save and then see the team respond by going down the ice and scoring -- can be contagious in a locker room or on a bench. The Blues hope Mason and Conklin can do that for them this season and their never give up attitude in the goal crease.

In fact, this could be the best goaltending tandem the Blues have had since Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante combined for 13 shutouts in the 1968-69 season or Greg Millen and Rick Wamsley in 1985-86.

With Mason and Conklin, all you have to do is look at how hard they had to work to get to the NHL.

During a good run in juniors at Prince George in the Western Hockey League, Chris was drafted in the seventh round, 122nd, by the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. He went from the Devils' organization to Anaheim, to Nashville, to Florida and back to Nashville before he finally found a niche with the Predators backing up Tomas Vokoun in 2003-04.

Conklin's resume is similar. He was underrated out of the University of New Hampshire and following a stint in Edmonton, where he won 17 games in 2003-04, Ty then spent backup time in Columbus and Buffalo before going to Pittsburgh -- his fourth NHL club in three years.

"We have a mutual respect for one another, having had to fight and battle just to make it to the NHL," Mason explained. "There's a level of support that I have for Ty and he has for me that I think is obvious."

Added Conklin, "You know how hard it is how hard it is to get this far, what you went through from team to team to team."

Mason said he's never appreciated being called a backup, saying, "This isn't football, where the backup never plays. In hockey, the other goalie winds up playing, what 30 to 30 percent of the games. And you can't tell me those points aren't just as important to a team."

Said Conklin, "Eighty-two games is a lot, especially in the Western Conference where just making it to the playoffs is a 12- of 13-team battle every year and the travel is so hard."

Murray said he's not asking Mason or Conklin to be great in the goal crease, just good enough to give the Blues a chance to win every night.

When right is right -- GM Scott Howson has shown the kind of patience to get what he wants for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the last two-plus seasons. One thing he has looked long and hard for is a right-handed shooting defenseman with skill for the power play.

Howson was intrigued by what he saw from Anton Stralman in his 30-something games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League last season. He watched as Stralman was traded to Calgary in July.

Then, in training camp, the Columbus GM finally got his man in a trade for a third-round draft choice three days before the season began. All Stralman has done is contribute 1 goal and 3 assists in his last five games.

"I was in Calgary for a month and a half. My fiance had our second child and then, I'm off to Columbus," said the 23-year-old defenseman from Tibro, Sweden. "Crazy business. My life was kind of turned upside down. But it has been great in Columbus, where they want me to play my game. Move the puck. Be creative. And use my shot."

Depth charges -- When the Chicago Blackhawks faced Nashville Oct. 24, they were without captain Jonathan Toews, key defender Brent Seabrook, tough guy Ben Eager (all with concussion symptoms), plus big free-agent signing Marian Hossa (out til late November following shoulder surgery). Still, the Hawks beat the Preds, 2-0.

"We have talked a lot about how much depth we have in this organization. Now, you're seeing it, where anyone can step up from the fourth line and play on the first line and vice versa. We've also gotten great support whenever someone comes up from Rockford (American Hockey League)."
-- Cam Barker

"We have talked a lot about how much depth we have in this organization," said defenseman Cam Barker. "Now, you're seeing it, where anyone can step up from the fourth line and play on the first line and vice versa. We've also gotten great support whenever someone comes up from Rockford (American Hockey League)."

Still trying to be a Finn-ished product -- Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has been trying to get Valtteri Filppula to shoot more since he arrived in Detroit. But Babcock won't regret the other skills the former third-round pick brings to Detroit's lineup every night.

He's only had 2 goals and 2 assists coming into this week, but ...

"Fil's been our best forward all season," said Bibcock. "Any time we're looking at what our team is doing well, Fil's line (he's been with Ville Leino and Jason Williams most of the season) is the one we're always showing clips of."

Williams, who was a 21-goal scorer for the Wings in 2005-06 when Filppula got in his first four NHL games, says he sees the difference in Valtteri after Jason's been away from Detroit for the last few seasons.

"You can tell he's matured a lot," Williams explained. "He's a lot stronger on the puck. He's very creative. He uses his speed to create a lot of offensive chances. I think watching Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, he's learned a lot of moves and he's added them into his game."

For offense, you have to watch in 3D --
Following a 2-0 loss at Chicago Oct. 24, the Nashville Predators had already been shut out in three of their first 10 games this season. It turns out, the only night their offense exploded was two nights earlier in Ottawa, when J.P. Dumont has a franchise record with five points -- 1 goal and 4 assists -- in a 6-5 overtime win over the Senators.

But the goal-getting didn't come from up front ... but rather from three defensemen -- Ryan Suter (two), Cody Franson and Shea Weber (two, including the game-winner).
"We've talked a lot about how the scoring chances come from not only working harder, but also from working smarter." - Shea Weber
Said Weber, "We've talked a lot about how the scoring chances come from not only working harder, but also from working smarter."

It's obvious coach Barry Trotz is counting on Weber and Suter more and more. Weber's minutes are up from 23:58 last season to 25:27 this season. And Suter's ice time has increased from 24:18 to 25:23.

Quirky schedule --
Don't look now, but when Chicago travels to Nashville Thursday, it will be the third time the Blackhawks and Predators will have played in the first 12 games of this season.

Odd schedule? You bet, when you consider that the Hawks will be done with their six games against Nashville by the end of December. By contrast, Chicago won't play division rival St. Louis for the first time until Dec. 16.
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