Communication is the key

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- In theory, it's a simple, basic play. The goalie stops the puck behind the net and gives it to the defenceman, the guy whose job it is to get the offence rolling.

But when a play of that nature turned into a disaster for the Edmonton Oilers on Monday in the opener of the Stanley Cup final against the Carolina Hurricanes, it became evident that it's nowhere near as simple and basic as it appears to be.

Any National Hockey League defenceman will tell you that the success of the play depends primarily on communication between the goaltender and the defenceman.

But how do you communicate when an exuberant crowd is screaming at the top of its lungs?

You don't. In that situation, you have to rely on expectations that have been built up in practices and in previous games -- areas in which, in this instance, the Oilers sadly were deficient.

Starting goaltender Dwayne Roloson had been injured with less than six mInutes remaining in the game, and replacing him was Ty Conklin, who hadn't seen any action since the regular season.

The Oilers had so little expectation of using their backup goalie that they had simply alternated the responsibility throughout the playoffs. One night it would be Jussi Markkanen; the next it would be Conklin. What difference could it make?

But suddenly, there was Conklin trying to make a handoff to Jason Smith with Carolina forward Rod Brind'Amour bearing down. The puck got tangled up in Smith's skates, and Brind'Amour promptly fished it out and put it into the open net.

It was a fortuitous play, but, really, Brind'Amour shouldn't have had the opportunity. Conklin had the puck on his stick behind the net. Then, with Smith right on top of him, tried to make a backhand pass. He was too close to Smith to make that play.

Veteran defenceman Glen Wesley knew how the mistake could happen. "You're sitting on the bench for 55 minutes," he said, "then all of a sudden, you're in the game and your mind may not be the sharpest in a situation like that."

But at the same time, Smith probably should not have been so close. The defenceman's responsibility, Wesley said, is clear: "Get out of his way."

But it's not black and white.

"It's difficult," Wesley said, "for any goaltender who comes in cold to a situation like this, and as a defenceman, to read off the goaltender. The bottom line is communication. You have to have that."

So we're back where we started. Communication is the key, but you can't communicate. You do what you feel is best and by the time you realize the other guy has the same idea, it's too late.

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"It's not a grave error or anything like that," Smith said. "If we had been more vocal, maybe it would have worked out better.

"Every situation is different. Sometimes the goalie makes the play. Sometimes you feel as a defencemen you can come and pick up the puck and make the play yourself. Obviously it didn't work out well for us."

But if there's any consolation for the Oilers, it is that when the series shifts to Edmonton for Saturday's Game 3, it will be the Hurricanes who have to cope with howling fans.

"Those young San Jose defencemen are skilled and really good," Oilers defenceman Steve Staios said, "but early in the (second-round) games when we were playing them, you could see it.

"You'd dump it in and the crowd's going berserk in our building and they don't know where to go with it. They're trying to look for each other. That's where that home-ice advantage comes in."

After that heart-breaking loss on Monday, the Oilers need every advantage they can get.


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