SUN Hockey Pool

No excuses

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:46 PM ET

A crowded crease is no longer a distraction.

Stopping pucks is what matters, and doing so with greater regularity than in the first half of the season is the focus for the Edmonton Oilers masked tandem of Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen.

With Mike Morrison dispatched to Greenville of the ECHL for a two-week conditioning assignment - the third such stint issued to an Oiler goaltender while Craig MacTavish tries to figure out who will stick around - now is as good a time as any for Conklin and Markkanen to make their cases.

MacTavish isn't framing it that way, of course, but one need only look at the numbers to know the window of opportunity for them to bounce back from a bad first half won't stay open indefinitely. Time, like the patience of MacTavish and GM Kevin Lowe, is not without bounds.

Over to you, gentlemen.

"I think they're both finally rounding into the situation we envisioned at the start of the year," said MacTavish, finding a silver lining in some improved outings of late. "We want to make sure that continues.

"We're by no means comfortable right now, but things are rounding into the way we anticipated. We've had pretty good, consistent goaltending. That, really, is what every team is looking for, that good consistency. And, maybe the odd night, to win you a game when you shouldn't."

BEST NUMBERS

While Morrison had the best numbers - he packed for the ECHL with a 5-1-0 record, 2.35 goals-against average and a .904 save-percentage - he hadn't played since Dec. 19.

The move makes sense for Morrison and for Conklin, who'll start against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, as well as Markkanen. It's been a three's-a-crowd situation all season, save for Conklin's absence through injury and two trips to the minors.

"There's definitely room for improvement," Markkanen said. "I can only talk about myself, but I feel I haven't played my best yet. I feel like it's just around the corner, but I haven't been quite there. I'm proud of the way the guys have played.

"They've scored some goals and we've won some games because of it, but the time will come when you need your goaltending."

Conklin, 29, expected to be the No. 1 guy when the season began, is coming off his best performance, a 5-0 blanking of the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday.

He's 5-3-1 with a 2.88 GAA and an .883 saves percentage. As modest as those numbers are, they're better than they were.

"I wouldn't say I've played my best," Conklin said. "Since I've been back from the minors, even in games we've lost, I've felt fine. I've felt good lately."

Markkanen, 30, who made 15 consecutive starts in one stretch, has a 13-10-3 record, a 3.16 GAA and .885 saves percentage. He's won three of his last four decisions.

TWO NETS

"There's only two nets," Markkanen said about the benefit of a two-man rotation in practice. "You can do your thing.

"Other than that, it shouldn't affect your game or the way that you do things. When you have two guys, it's just easier to get enough work done."

Going into last night, the Oilers, thanks in large part to Morrison, ranked 14th in goals-against average at 3.00. Obviously, there's room for improvement. If Conklin or Markkanen can deliver, the Oilers, sitting with 50 points, might really be able to make some noise the rest of the way.

If not, the situation gets sticky. Morrison is taking up one roster spot while in the minors, and that means somebody will have to move to make room for Radek Dvorak when he comes off injured reserve.

The bottom line is that carrying three goaltenders isn't workable. Chances are, when the next ticket out of town is issued, it'll be one way - waivers on the way to the minors or a trade.

"You only can control how you play," Conklin said. "In that way, it doesn't make much difference if there's two or 20 goalies.

"Obviously, the first half wasn't my best, but I can't sit and think about that. If we have a good second half and get into the playoffs and do well, heck, it can still be a good year. A great year."


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