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Just one week shy of 12 years ago, Craig MacTavish won what was likely the most pressure-filled face-off draw in New York Rangers – and possibly NHL – history. As the game clock ticked down to zero in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals against the Vancouver Canucks, the puck slid back to the corner boards and the Broadway Blueshirts ended a 54-year championship drought. Now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, MacTavish has been the proverbial ballast for an eighth-seeded team that has sailed beyond all expectations en route to their appearance in this year’s finals.
Tonight, MacTavish will try to keep his team on course as they take on the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of the finals, following a Game 1 collapse that saw Edmonton squander a 3-0 lead before ultimately falling 5-4. But MacTavish’s challenge extends far beyond the typical x’s and o’s. The Oilers suffered a loss on Monday night that has left an enormous chasm in their lineup.
Late in Game 1, Edmonton defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron inadvertently checked Carolina forward Andrew Ladd into goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and the resulting collision left the Oilers’ netminder with a serious knee injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the series. It is fair to say that Roloson is Edmonton’s most indispensable player, so his team’s hopes have been severely diminished now that he’s been forced to the sidelines.
Put simply, Roloson completely reversed the Oilers’ fortunes after his arrival just before the trade deadline, and he emerged as a top candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP). By making all of the necessary saves and giving his team a chance to win virtually every night, Roloson provided the Oilers with the safety net upon which every Stanley Cup winner must depend. Now MacTavish must choose between backups Jussi Markkanen and Ty Conklin, two inferior options.
During the regular season, both Markkanen and Conklin struggled badly, necessitating the deadline deal in which GM Kevin Lowe gave up a first round draft pick in order to acquire the 36-year-old Roloson. After Game 1, the unflappable MacTavish did not express much concern about the impact those struggles had on his goalies’ confidence.
“I’d just like to start by saying, no questions on goaltending,” he opened with a chuckle, before bathing the situation in an incomprehensibly positive light. “They are NHL goaltenders, they have done it on a big stage before. Jussi was the best goalie in the Russian league last year in the lockout. Ty did a terrific job at the World Championships with the U.S. team. They have done it before, they have that to fall back on, and that’s important.”
But results speak for themselves, and Conklin and Markkanen proved to be wholly inadequate through the first three-quarters of this season, which made Roloson’s impact all the more striking. Without him, the Oilers were a borderline playoff team, on the outside looking in; with him, they became a legitimate Cup contender. The difference could best be summarized with an analysis of the goalies’ save percentages: Roloson’s .905 success rate was substantially better than the league’s .898 average, while Edmonton’s three other goalies (Conklin, Markkanen, and Michael Morrison) posted an atrocious .881 rate combined.
Given the uncertainty in goal, immense pressure falls upon the entire Oilers roster to make up the difference, and perhaps nowhere more acutely than upon the shoulders of first-pair defensemen Chris Pronger and Jason Smith. Pronger scored a goal on a penalty shot in Game 1, and has been a workhorse throughout the playoffs. With Roloson out of the picture, he is the prohibitive favorite to win the Conn Smythe should the Oilers emerge victorious in the Finals.
Smith’s first finals game didn’t go as well, however, and a crisis of consequence is a distinct possibility for the Oilers’ captain. When Conklin came in to replace Roloson late in the third period with the score tied at four, he and Smith miscommunicated behind the net, which led directly to the game-winning goal. Smith will bear the burden of that costly misplay when he takes the ice tonight.
Throughout the playoffs, the Oilers have been spectacularly resilient. In Game 1 of their first-round series with the Detroit Red Wings, they squandered a lead in the third period and lost in overtime, losing an opportunity to draw first blood against their heavily favored opponents. But rather than wilt, the Oilers rebounded and won four of the next five games to eliminate the Wings.
Across the ice, Carolina goaltender Cam Ward had an entirely different experience in Game 1. He gave up the game’s first three goals – including an Ethan Moreau wrist shot that might well have been the softest goal of this year’s playoffs – but rebounded in spectacular fashion as the game progressed. By the final buzzer, Ward had made 34 saves, including a spectacular game-preserving glove save on Shawn Horcoff with just under four seconds to go.
But the biggest story for Carolina in Game 1 was the play of their indomitable captain, Rod Brind’Amour. He won 28 of 34 draws (82%) against one of the NHL’s better teams in the faceoff circle, and scored two goals, including the game-winner – following Smith’s gaffe – with only 32 seconds remaining. His 11 playoff goals lead all players in the playoffs, and the 35-year-old center is in the process of capping a Selke Trophyworthy regular season with an even more impressive Conn Smythe Trophy winning performance.
The Hurricanes clearly have the upper hand, up 1-0 and facing a reeling Oilers team that must now make do without Roloson. But the plucky Oilers have been remarkably resilient throughout these playoffs,and there’s little reason to believe that won’t remain the case to the bitter end, especially with the eversteady MacTavish running the ship.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.