EDMONTON, Alberta – Jussi Markkanen tilted his head, rubbed the blond beard sprouting from his chin and let out one of those smiles that says: C’mon, what do you think?
No way he saw this coming.
Markkanen spent more than three months either banished to the Edmonton bench, where the only thing he tended was the door for player changes, or exiled to some faraway perch above the ice, where he squinted to watch the game in street clothes.
“If you had asked me two weeks ago did I think I would be playing in the Stanley Cup finals,” he said, pausing for effect, “no, I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone else thought I would be playing, either.”
Markkanen isn’t just playing – he’s thriving. Amazingly, this 31-year-old journeyman of a goalie is a major reason the Oilers are still alive in the Stanley Cup finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, though Edmonton does trail 3-2 going to Saturday’s Game 6.
The Oilers took a major blow in the opener when Dwayne Roloson, the star of their unprecedented run through the playoffs, sustained a series-ending knee injury. Backup Ty Conklin gave up the winning goal in the final minute after botching a play behind the net.
When it became apparent that Roloson was done, coach Craig MacTavish played a most unusual hunch. He called on his third-string goalie to handle the job the rest of the series, even though Markkanen had not played since March 1 and struggled through a disappointing regular season.
“Obviously I had doubts, especially before my first game,” Markkanen said Thursday, a day after the Oilers kept the series going with a 4-3 overtime win in Raleigh, N.C.
Once he got on the ice, Markkanen quickly got over his jitters. Not even a 5-0 loss in his first playoff start shook his confidence – three of the goals were off deflections, and MacTavish said he was impressed with the goalie’s demeanor and assurance in handling the puck.
Since that dismal start, Markkanen has been superb. He stopped 63 of 69 shots over the past three games, a .913 save percentage that’s a big improvement on his .880 mark during the regular season. Most important, he hasn’t given up any shaky goals that might rattle his confidence or turn his teammates into doubters.
While Carolina has its own rock in the nets, 22-year-old old rookie Cam Ward, the Hurricanes acknowledged the fine play of Markkanen.
“He’s played great,” said Mark Recchi, who managed to score the winning goal in Game 4 against Markkanen. “He came in when he was really needed and was sharp right away. That says a lot about the way he stayed ready, even when he wasn’t playing.”