Johnson: As Kiprusoff goes, so do the Flames
As usual, Flames will ride workhorse goalie, their most important player, Miikka Kiprusoff in vigorous attempt to end playoff drought
Showered, changed and ready to flee into the WinSport parking lot recently, Miikka Kiprusoff nonetheless patiently stopped, threading his way along a conga line of replica sweaters, 8x10s and scraps of paper to be signed for awestruck kids egged on by their equally slack-jawed parents.
“Would you?” politely asked one lady toting a digital camera, ushering her tentative young son towards the local icon.
Kiprusoff nodded obligingly, hoisted the boy and managed a lopsided grin.
The lady pressed the Click! button. “Your daddy,” she gushed, “isn’t going to believe this!” A quick pat on the head, a cameo-keepsake captured for posterity, and for at least one mom and son the built-up bitterness of the past four hockey-less months faded a little further into shadow.
“Hey,” teased a nearby witness to the Calgary Flames goaltender’s gesture of good fellowship, “what gives? Running for politics now? You know, shaking hands and kissing babies.”
“You know, especially because of the lockout.”
Well, he’s important, too.
You know, especially because of the lockout.
It’s no secret that even now Miikka Kiprusoff remains the Flames’ best hope. That’s true of any year. Pick a year. Such has been his influence, he’s Polyfilla-ed over a staggering number of cracks throughout his tenure here, kept mediocre teams in hunts long after they should’ve been done and dusted.
He is the single most important player in this organization. Still. At 36. Period. Full stop.
But in such a condensed time frame, the dizzying 48-game schedule that awaits, goaltending arguably takes on an even greater significance. Which is encouraging news for a group facing long odds, and little outside expectation, at ending a three-springtime playoff shortfall.
Teams can ride a hot netminder a long way in a short time, far longer way in some cases than they have any logical right to expect. Over the course of an 82-game campaign, class usually wins out. Here, in a shortened season, don’t dismiss the surprising.
“It’s going to be crazy, such a short period of time, so many games,” mused Kiprusoff. “It’s going to be interesting, how we practice, how we handle our time. It’s new for all of us.
“If you’re a goalie and you feel good, things are going well, playing games every other day is perfect.
“Is (goaltending) more important? Sure. But I think everything’s more important. You can say it’s goaltending. You can say it’s a hot power play. You can say it’s a real good penalty kill. So many things can contribute to winning.”
Modesty befits the man.
During the last lockout-shortened season, 1994-95, Calgary’s Trevor Kidd and Montreal’s still saintly Patrick Roy tied for the most appearances, 43 out of 48. Can Kiprusoff better that over the next two and half months? Most likely, given the uncertainly of Calgary’s backup situation.
Since arriving here from San Jose, he’s played in 70 or more in every year but the first, when he and the legendary Roman Turek split duties, and appeared in 38 games. The prevailing in the past is 15 starts in succession before being handed a quick respite to draw breath, although on occasion he’s reached 20.
So 48 on the trot would be, even for him, a bit of a stretch.
“I know Kipper,” says goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk. “He’s capable of playing 48 games. No question about that. But given the compressed scheduled, with games closer together and factoring in the travel ... We’ll just have to manage his practices. If he needs time off, he’ll have to get it. Making sure we just keep him fresh, that’s no different than last year. Or any year. That’s important, no matter how many games are on the schedule. Or how many he’s asked to play in.”
Kiprusoff himself, who thrives on the punishing workload and is one of the best of recent times of sliding the occasional poor outing into his mental shredder, believes running the table is possible, if arguably not practical or realistic.
“Why not? I think so,” hedges Kiprusoff. “But again, like I say, I’ve never been there. It’s going to be intense. As I always say: If the coaches think that’s best for the team, that’s what we’ll do.”
In such a situation, with all games against head-to-head conference foes and carrying such grave implications, every Kiprusoff start is best for this team.
Malarchuk knows that having a decorated campaigner between the iron pegs is the ideal situation given that the frantic pace won’t allow for as much practice time as usual.
“Kipper’s 36 years old. There’s not a lot of teaching with him. I’m more like an extra set of eyes. You watch for little glitches that could turn into a habit.” He laughs. “Let’s put it this way: For a guy with his experience there isn’t a large learning curve. And he’s competitive. He loves to play. He loves the workload.
“I think all goalies do. When I was in Washington, I think I went in 24 in a row at one point. It was great. People worry that you’ll wear down, get tired. Actually, you get in a groove and it becomes, I think, easier. It’s harder being a backup going in cold once every two or three weeks. In this sort of strange situation, with the reduced schedule, you’re just rolling one game into another. It’ll just ... unfold. No time to think. To worry. Just back at it.
“Even if you have a stinker, in my opinion, it’s better. You get right back in there. Otherwise it lingers. If you have a bad night and then don’t play for a week, there’s apt to be a little bit of a hangover effect. The quicker you get back in there and stop that first shot, the better.”
For all 30 clubs, the aim is to hit the ground running. Calgary has been given five of its first six on Scotibank Saddledome ice, so it isn’t out of line to imply that a fast start in the opening half-dozen could set them up to make a legitimate playoff push; a poor one, sink them outright.
“If you can get on a roll, get that positive energy going, you can pile up a lot of points pretty quick,” agrees Malarchuk. “I think every team is saying the same thing: Let’s get out of the gate quick. Everyone realizes you don’t want to fall behind in this quick race to the playoffs. So the start is key.”
And that, of course, is where No. 34, as he so often does, comes in. Most everything with this team, in this town, starts, and finishes, with him.
So once again, this year the fate of the civilized world as we know it apparently rests on Miikka Kiprusoff’s shoulders. We’re used to that. He is, too.
But in this peculiar environment, with the frantic jockeying sure to keep the drama heavy over the next 48 games, he may actually be more pivotal, more impactful, than ever.
“I think he’ll thrive,” predicts Malarchuk. “Because this race will almost have a playoff atmosphere. Every night is important. It’ll be exciting. Each game, each save, is magnified. It’s gonna be fun.
“And as everyone knows, when Kipper’s having fun, at the top of his game, he’s a tough man to beat.”
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