Sunday, September 09, 2012

Oilers History: Tommy Salo and the goal that changed everything

Many hockey observers tend to forget just how good former Edmonton Oilers netminder Tommy Salo was during his time in Oil Country. After being acquired from the New York Islanders during the 1998-1999 season, he had the unenviable task of following fan favourite Curtis Joseph. Not only was the Swede up to the challenge but he was arguably just as good, if not better, than Cujo during his time in Edmonton.

Yet the only thing that the vast majority remember the quiet tender for is February 20, 2002 and the day he allowed "that" goal. You all know the goal...the one that will go down as the greatest moment in the history of Belarus hockey and the goal that ruined the career of one Tommy Salo.

Heading into the 2002 Olympics, Salo was putting together a rather memorable season, despite playing in front of a squad that lacked in many areas. When the NHL shut things down to prepare for Salt Lake City, the underrated puckstopper had appeared 53 of Edmonton's first 61 games, with a 21-22-9 record, 2.33 GAA and a .910 SV%. Impressive numbers on a team that were struggling to stay insight of the Western Conference playoff race.

Sweden kicked off the 2002 Olympics in style, pounding Team Canada 5-2 in the opener, as Joseph was chased from the Canadian net. It was a sign of things to come, as the Swedes breezed through the round robin portion of the tournament with a perfect 3-0 mark and looked to be the favourites heading into the quarter-finals.

Salo had been solid in goal and with Belarus on tap in the final eight, another date with Canada seemed inevitable. Canada held up their part of the bargain, edging Finland 2-1 but the Swedes would not. Falling to Belarus 4-3, in arguably the biggest upset in Olympic hockey history.

Credit goes to Belarus for staying with the heavily favoured Swedes but all that will ever be remembered is the goal Salo allowed with two and half minutes to play

Obviously it was a crushing defeat and an awful way for Sweden to be bounced from the competition but for Salo it was a career changing and unfortunately, defining moment. The Oilers netmender was about as reserved a player as one would find in the entire NHL but he was a very proud man, that cherished every opportunity he was given to put on the yellow and blue for his country. To say it was a "crushing" defeat for the than 31 year old netminder, would be a massive understatement.

Despite being vilified in his homeland for the blunder and becoming the butt end of jokes everywhere, Salo returned to Edmonton with something to prove to himself and hockey fans around the world. Over the Oilers final 21 games, he not only relocated his early season form but was even better upon his return.

He started 16 of those games, going 9-6-1 with a ridiculous 1.83 GAA and .925 SV%, which included an eight game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) in mid March, that nearly pushed the Oilers into the post season. They may have just missed out on eighth place in the Western Conference but their netminder showed a ton of character bouncing back and things were looking up for 2002-2003.

Unfortunately, a summer filled with endless shots at Salo for his Olympic mishap, finally took its toll. As mentioned earlier, Tommy was a proud guy and the constant bashing he and his family received were simply too much for him to deal with. When he returned to Edmonton for the '02-'03 season, it was clear he wasn't the same guy.

He went from being a model of consistency, to a guy that you could either be outstanding or awful, on any given night. While he would never be mistaken for a rah-rah type of a player, he always appeared to enjoy playing the game and be around his teammates. That was no longer the case. The spark was gone.

Surprisingly,Edmonton still managed to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2002-2003 but fell, as they usually did, to the Dallas Stars in six games. However, the difference this time around was Salo. While he was the reason any of those previous series against the Stars,post Joseph, were as close as they were, his inconsistent play in '02-'03 kept Edmonton from upsetting a very beatable Stars squad.

Salo would start the 2003-2004 campaign in Edmonton but would not finish it, as he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline for prospect Tom Gilbert. The deal wound up being a steal for the Oilers, as Salo would retire from the NHL at the end of the season.

It was a disappointing end, to what had had been a solid National Hockey League career for the man from Surahammar, Sweden. Sadly for Salo, he will always be remembered for nothing more than that the one mistake...which is a real pity.

Oilers History Page

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