The Stopper

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:02 AM ET

You don't win without a goalie.

You don't always win WITH a goalie, but you definitely don't win without one.

Any club that expects to succeed in the National Hockey League has to be as good or better between the pipes than anybody else.

And in a division that features Miikka Kiprusoff, Roberto Luongo, Manny Fernandez and Jose Theodore, well, the Edmonton Oilers don't have much room for error.

"You can't win a lot of games if you're outplayed in that position," said head coach Craig MacTavish, who knows this more than anyone after the netminding struggles his club endured early last season.

"It's the most important positional matchup in the game. With the quality of goaltenders in our division, you're going to have to stand on your head a lot of nights so that you don't get outplayed, and I feel comfortable in those matchups."

It's a matchup they lost far too many nights last season, when Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen took turns fishing softies out of their own nets. But with playoff hero Dwayne Roloson signed to a three-year, $11 million contract, their worries, they believe, are over.

"What we went through last year, we didn't want to repeat that," said general manager Kevin Lowe, who made landing Roloson, an unrestricted free agent, the priority of his summer. "We want to get off on the right foot at the beginning of the year."

When Roloson was almost single-handedly stealing games in the playoffs, stifling some of the Western Conference's best shooters to the point of complete frustration, there seemed very little doubt he could be an elite No.1 in the NHL.

But fans like to worry about their hockey, and with the core of an almost impenetrable defence gone, along with the post-season urgency that saw adrenaline charged teammates sacrificing everything to prevent a goal, some are worried that last spring will be awfully difficult to duplicate.

The knee injury that sidelined him in Game 1 of the Cup final is a non-issue, he says, and we should take him at his word on that.

But with a career record of 97-123 in the regular season, there are still some doubts, fair or not, that he can do it again with a thinner defence.

It should be noted, though, that none of those doubts are harboured in the Edmonton dressing room.

"You do try to analyze where you were last year relative to where we are this year, and from our perspective, with Roloson there and Pronger gone, it could be a bit of a wash," said MacTavish. "I don't think it's any secret he was the best goalie in the playoffs."

He doesn't have to be as good, it stands to reason, given the amount of goals Edmonton is expected to score, but he has to be close, at least, to the game-breaker he was last spring.

Shawn Horcoff says netminding is the very last thing he has concerns about heading into this season.

"Having him here all year is going to make a huge difference," said Horcoff. "That alone makes us better at this point in the season than we were last year. He's one of the best goaltenders in the game. We saw it in the playoffs, and having that kind of confidence in your netminder helps the whole team."

With a team to call his own after years of splitting the duties or caddying for someone else, Roloson knows what's expected of him and what it'll take to deliver it.

"I have to work hard to get back to where I was at." said the 36-year-old. "And then get better."


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