Johnson: MacDonald deserves credit for role in keeping Flames afloat in Kiprusoff’s absence
Veteran goalie plans to be a team player even though he’s likely headed for long spells on the bench
Backing up Miikka Kiprusoff would be comparable to, say, understudying Laurence Olivier in a West End production of Richard III. Or filling in for Babe Ruth at cleanup in the Murders Row Yankee lineup.
You don’t expect many curtain calls, a whole lot of home-run trots.
Well, Joey MacDonald hit his cues, delivered his lines, took his cuts, and for a 33-year-old guy with a bad back, did himself proud.
So now, with Kiprusoff back on the boards and baseball buff Bob Hartley itching to pencil No. 34’s name back on the lineup card, MacDonald folds up the cape, exits the phone booth and goes back to being mild-mannered Clark Kent. Willingly. Happily.
“He’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league for last 10 years,” shrugged MacDonald, nodding at the empty stall immediately to his left in the Calgary Flames dressing compound. “He’s one of the goalies I like watching on TV. I’ve learned a lot of things from goalies over the years. Chris Osgood. Dominik Hasek. I play with these guys and you take a little bit from each one.
“I’m 33, but I can still learn. There’s still little things you can pick up.
“So I’m excited about this.
“For me, it’s just stay positive and keep going. There’s still, what, 28 games left? A lot of hockey in a short period of time. When I do get an opportunity, I just have to be ready and pitch in.
“I knew Kipper, once he got back he’d want to play every single night. So you’ve gotta have the right mindset. But I came in here and played well, I think.”
Above and beyond, as the saying goes.
“I didn’t know much about him, hadn’t seen him play a lot, coming in,” admitted goaltending guru Clint Malarchuk, “but he’s really impressed me. First off, he’s a really, really good guy. If you’re going to back up, it’s important to be a good person. People don’t realize how crucial that is. You’re not only a support for the goalie who’s playing, you’re a support for the whole team. You’ve got to be positive. Upbeat. Not a downer. Not a complainer.
“He’s just a wonderful guy, has a great demeanour, but he’s a lot better as a goalie than I thought he was, too.”
With a 3-3-1 won-lost record, he’s actually sporting a better save percentage (.899) and GAA (3.04) than the maestro himself through seven appearances. Why, Hartley dubbed MacDonald’s turn in that 2-1 OT loss at the Xcel Energy Centre in St. Paul last Tuesday as “our best goaltending performance of the season.”
And now, after filling in so admirably, more holding up his end of the bargain, he retreats into the bullpen in a game that starters — particularly starters the stature of Kiprusoff — loathe taking nights off.
“It’s a job that’s tough, you may go two or three weeks without playing and then all of a sudden you get thrown in there,” MacDonald conceded. “You’ve got to have the mental side to it: You’ve got to be a great supporter, kinda like a cheerleader and be one of the best guys in the room.
“If you do that, when the time comes for you to go in and play, you give yourself a better chance.”
During practice Tuesday, a surprise. Inside a box by the equipment staff, MacDonald’s new Flames’ mask (he’d been wearing a Detroit model). For a goaltender, getting a new mask with the new paint job is kind of like picking out furniture. The feeling that a commitment’s been made.
“As a goalie, it’s something you take pride in, your mask, what you put on it,” said MacDonald. “So I’ve always wondered why guys like shooting at it and hitting it all the time, messing it up.
“Grant Fuhr’s, back when he was with the Oilers, was one of my favourites. Just classic. I kinda like it straight to the point. Something that brings the team into it. A lot of guys customize, do stuff themselves, are pretty sophisticated. ‘I want this! I want this!’
“The only thing I like having on there are the names of my kids” — daughter Kendall, five; and eight-year-old son Camden.
“I’m pretty easy going. I just tell them a couple ideas and say ‘Go ahead, do it.’ ”
What he can take away from this, no matter how many or how few minutes he logs from here on in, is a ton of self-satisfaction. This is someone, after all, who hadn’t played since March 4th, 2012, due to those back problems, who might’ve been as surprised as anyone when the Flames plucked him off the waiver wire.
“There were long days in March and April,” he conceded. “Good days, bad days and some days you couldn’t get off the couch. You’re wondering ‘Is that it? Did I play my last game?’ But you just keep positive, show up to the rink, do what you gotta do. The trainers were great in Detroit, getting me back playing.
“They took it slow. But something like that you can’t rush.”
The easygoing Maritimer, doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to rush into anything. He has a new mask and a renewed belief that, at 33, he can still bunt a few back in the bigs.
Hey, life could be worse, right?
When Kiprusoff went down with the knee injury weeks ago, a panicked populace hereabouts simply assumed the end was nigh, the season lost. Well, the Flames are still in this playoff thing, hanging stubbornly around the cut line.
In no small part thanks to their surprisingly stingy stop-gap, who helped buy them that most precious of commodities: Time.
He arrived here with no illusions. Doesn’t mind being stunt double for Kiprusoff. This is, remember, someone well drilled in recognizing when the moment has arrived to stand back and let the leading man take his close-ups.
He delivered his lies, took his cuts.
“It’s great,” said Joey MacDonald, “to get him back, to get him out there.”
Sounding as if he meant every word.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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