AHL seasoning plays important part in Berra’s dominating debut for the Flames
Swiss goalie still the talk of the town after backstopping Calgary to 3-2 OT win over Chicago
At the beginning of the season, the Calgary Flames made the decision to send Reto Berra to the Abbotsford Heat with a few hopes in mind.
As the lone netminder of the three at the team’s 2013-14 training camp with no National Hockey League experience on his resume, the team erred on the side of caution and stuck with journeyman veteran Joey MacDonald and the relatively green Karri Ramo instead.
Toiling in the Swiss elite league day-in and day-out, as one could imagine, is not the same as the day-to-day grind of the NHL.
“We wanted him to get some experience,” Flames head coach Bob Hartley was saying after Sunday’s 3-2 overtime victory over the host Chicago Blackhawks. “To get a feel for the American Hockey League, especially the rinks. The pace of the AHL . . . the travel . . . it makes it tough. I think it was a great mental test for him.”
Carrying most of the load in Abbotsford, Berra got his feet wet in North American to the tune of a 4-3-1 record and posted a 2.66 goals against average and 0.908 save percentage.
But following Friday’s 4-3 home loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the Flames put MacDonald on waivers before shipping him to the Heat on Sunday to give Berra a shot.
The timing, they figured, was as good as any — and why not against the defending Stanley Cup champions?
“Talking with Troy Ward, he only had great things to say about Reto,” Hartley said. “We were always looking for the right time to bring him in. But now, after tonight’s game and his performance, it’s easy to say. But I think everything fell into place at the right time.”
Acquired in the Jay Bouwmeester deal with St. Louis, the 26-year-old Bulach native had last been seen in a Flames jersey in a 3-2 pre-season win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Sept. 26. And, on Sunday night when Flames’ fans saw him, he was busy turning out a 42-save performance which snapped a 10-game regular season losing streak at the United Center.
It was a performance good enough to warrant another start and don’t be surprised if Berra gets the nod Tuesday as Calgary’s four-game road trip through the NHL’s Central Division continues against the Minnesota Wild.
Likely, he was still the subject of conversation Monday morning in downtown Calgary while the team — now sitting 6-6-2 — enjoyed a rainy day off in the Twin Cities.
“I was really excited, really nervous,” Berra had said following Sunday’s game. “Not much to lose against the Stanley Cup winner in my first NHL game. They kept shooting on me right away which makes the job easier for a goalie, I was right in there. I had a couple crappy rebounds in the first (period) but the guys were helping out me out doing my job.
“Overall, I’m just happy right now.”
The most notable highlights from his NHL debut included two solid periods of being pelted by shots and a pair of highlight reel saves — both on the same five-on-three penalty kill which eventually led to Chicago’s 2-2 equalizer. First, he made a spectacular stop on a back-door waiting Patrick Sharp and an even nicer glove save on Patrick Kane.
“It was tough,” Berra said. “Especially when Kane got the puck on the side. I just tried to watch the puck really good and get a read on what he was doing, if he shoots or tries to pass back. But everything was good.
“That five-on-three, the pass from Kane to (Sharp) on the backdoor. I thought, ‘Where is the puck?’ I was lucky there. But it was a good save.”
According to Hartley, the poise Berra displayed was exactly what he’d watched while coaching against Berra during his time with the Zurich Lions.
“I saw him steal lots of games, that’s what I saw from him,” Hartley said. “The team he that he was playing for, a very hard working team but not very deep in talent. They would show up every game and he would get 35, 40, 45 shots every game. I saw him take his team to the playoffs. I saw him take his team to Game 7’s where he would get the three wins for his team, basically, by himself. He’s a national team goalie. And it’s not by luck. It’s not like suddenly we’re falling in love with a Swiss goalie.
“Not only is he very talented but he has the demeanour. It’s in him. You can feel he wants to do it, he wants to compete. He’s always in control. Lots of credit goes to him.”
But, also, to the rest of the team — the forwards for not giving up and the defence for helping make the game easier, blocking shots and limiting the productivity of the ‘Hawks first line of Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and their other dangerous trio of Kane, Brandon Saad, and Brandon Pirri.
An effort which Hartley hopes that continues on Tuesday.
“They never quit,” he said. “That seems to be the trademark of this hockey team. They never quit. They’re fun to watch. They know when they see, not to care about what’s going on and find a way to get it done. A day off (Monday) and we’re in Minny playing against a very good hockey club.
“So, we’re going to need to have everyone.”
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