Edmonton's playoff fate may depend on how fast Tommy Salo gets over his Olympic gaffe
It looked like an eight-day-old replay: Tommy Salo was standing awkwardly in the crease as a slap shot, whipped from outside the blue line, hit his body and wobbled into the net—a play stunningly similar to the 70-footer on which Salo was beaten for a game-winning goal by Belarus's Vladimir Kopat with 2:24 remaining in heavily favored Sweden's 4-3 Olympic quarterfinal loss.
Last Thursday the shooter was the Predators' Vitali Yachmenev, who whistled a long and stoppable shot past Salo, now in goal for the Oilers. That score tied the game at 2-2 just 25 seconds into the third period, set up a 3-2 Nashville win and prompted questions of whether Salo could shake off the embarrassment of his Salt Lake City gaffe and do his part to get Edmonton into the playoffs.
The spin in the Oilers' dressing room after the loss to the Predators was dizzying—"That was a difficult shot to stop, an absolute howitzer," rationalized coach Craig MacTavish—and signaled a team circling its wagons around its workhorse. While playing 3,178 minutes through Sunday (third in the NHL among goalies), Salo had an excellent 2.34 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage and had been the most consistent player on up-and-down Edmonton (26-24-11-2, ninth in the Western Conference).
The taciturn Salo publicly downplayed the aftereffects of the Olympic loss, saying that Yachmenev's goal was "not even close" to Kopat's and that he had "no time to talk about the Olympics. I have a gold medal [he backstopped Sweden to victory in 1994], and I've had good games."
Several Oilers said that the Olympics weren't a taboo subject around Salo, who joined a dozen teammates at an Edmonton bar to watch the U.S.- Canada gold medal match on Feb. 24. Salo, however, has been hammered at home. The Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet called the Belarus loss "a day of shame," and Expressen published the Swedish NHL players' pictures and salaries under the headline GUILTY: THEY BETRAYED THEIR COUNTRY. Salo's parents, who live in Surahammar, Sweden, and other members of his family have even been verbally harassed. "He can take criticism of himself," Edmonton left wing Josh Green says, "but when it starts affecting his family, that's not right."
"It's understandable," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, an Olympic teammate, says of the firestorm surrounding Salo. "That's what happens when you lose a game you should win. Expectations were high."
Through Sunday the Oilers had 19 games remaining in the regular season and trailed the Stars by two points for the conference's final playoff spot. To qualify for the postseason Edmonton knows Salo will have to carry the club. Says center Mike Comrie, "He's the guy who gives us a chance to win every night."
Injuries to Top Players
Calling All Doctors
The NHL's back-from-the-Olympics week was marred by a string of injuries to high-profile players, including Rangers center Mark Messier (shoulder surgery, out indefinitely) and Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake (bruised knee, out indefinitely), but three teams were hit especially hard: