Flames' fate tied to Kiprusoff's fortune

Updated: February 25, 2004, 1:03 AM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

The Kipper's quotes are about as juicy as his rebounds.

That is ... NOT.

"I'm happy," he says, smiling.

"This is nice," he says, still smiling.

He should be happy, and yes, what's happening to him is very nice, but this is a story -- no, a fairy tale -- as yet without an ending.

Miikka Kiprusoff
Miikka Kiprusoff is one of the underrated stars involved in the Sharks-Flames series.
A case could be made -- no laughing here -- for Miikka Kiprusoff as the most influential goaltender to his team this season. If he can somehow backstop the offensively-challenged Calgary Flames into the playoffs for the first time in eight years, he might deserve the Order of Canada as much as any league hardware.

That his old boss, Darryl Sutter, could pluck him out of San Jose for a conditional draft pick now appears the absolute height of larceny.

Kiprusoff is only 15-5-2 with a league-leading 1.49 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. In 16 of his 22 starts, he has given up two or fewer goals. He's a surprisingly big man, 6-foot-1, and those who know the finer points of the position are impressed by his athleticism and post-to-post quickness. It's easy to understand why Sharks' goaltending coach Warren Strelow predicted such big things for him.

Strelow just didn't expect those big things to happen in Calgary, at 27 years of age.

Kiprusoff has become one of those classic examples of right time, right team, right situation. He looks nothing like the goaltender who botched his first great opportunity at NHL reliability when Evgeni Nabokov held out in San Jose to open last season. No, this is someone with his emotions, his mind, his body in complete harmony.

"Last year, at the beginning ... well, things didn't go so well," acknowledges Kiprusoff. "I played six or seven games, the team didn't win, Nabby came back and I wasn't playing anymore."

They have become quite the item, this team no one took seriously and this goalie whose career seemed to be at a standstill. Kiprusoff's placid demeanor in net rubs off on his teammates. There's a distinctly different feel when either Roman Turek or Jamie McLennan are between the Calgary pipes.

"The team has such confidence in [Kiprusoff] now that they're not afraid to take chances, not afraid to give up the odd two-on-one, pinch in at the blue line, things like that," says Rogers SportsNet analyst, and old goalie, John Garrett. "Because they know he'll make the big save when he has to. You watch the way the team plays in front of him, and how they hesitate a little bit in front of Roman or Jamie."

No, what has become quite clear is that these Flames will go only as far as Miikka Kiprusoff can carry them.

"It means a lot," he says, "when people believe in you."

And boy, do they need to believe in the Kipper now, in their hour of need.

Not so very long ago, the Flames looked a lock to crack the top eight in the Western Conference. But then Kiprusoff got hurt, they limped along 7-10-2 in his absence, and suddenly the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars were visible in their side-view mirror: Warning, object closer than it appears!

Before Tuesday's win the Flames had lost three games in a row for the first time since early November, but they pulled out a 2-0 victory at the Pepsi Center against Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Paul Kariya and the obscenely talented Avs.

Through the last 20 games of the regular season, Kiprusoff is the most important man in Calgary. You could argue he's the most important man in the last seven years of the franchise. Because if the Flames falter late in the game now, with all the excitement and anticipation that's been built in a city dying for playoff hockey, it'll be the most disheartening of collapses. The organization is banking on Kiprusoff being up to the challenge. It really hasn't had a goaltender to count on coming down the stretch of a season since Mike Vernon was in his first tour of duty.

"I always say talent is a gift, character is choice," says Calgary's goaltending guru David Marcoux. "And Miikka has both. Even when he was hurt he wanted more ice, more shots, more time. More, more, more.

It means a lot when people believe in you.
Miikka Kiprusoff
"People always talk about goaltenders being in 'the zone.' Well, guys tend to drift out of that zone. It's my job to help Miikka [stay in it]. The talent is there. It's obvious. The motivation. He's relaxed. He isn't stressing out.

"Say Joe Sakic is coming in on a goalie one-on-one. Most guys think 'Joe Sakic! Oh brother ...' Miikka believes he's going to win that duel. He believes in his heart right now that he can win any duel with anyone."

Anaheim Mighty Ducks' color man Brian Hayward, a long-standing member of the goaltenders' guild, calls Kiprusoff "a hybrid." By that, he means there's more than just a butterfly guy. Most goaltenders today, given the oversized equipment, merely perfect cutting down the angle, square up to let the puck hit them and work like made to keep rebounds in front of them. Effective, sure, but much of the fun, a lot of the flare, of goalkeeping has been technological-ized out of the game in the process.

"The wave of Finns coming over, they play a much different style than most of the kids coming out of the Quebec league," says Hayward. "More of an athletic style, more of a throwback style. He'll come out and challenge. He's not just playing in a system, he's reading and reacting."

Says Kiprusoff: "If people ask what my style is, I always say it's a combination. I'm not a 100 percent butterfly guy. I'm ... somewhere in between."

However you want to describe his technique, ESPN's Darren Pang feels Kiprusoff rose up at a critical time in his career.

"He went to a team that wanted him, that needed him, and he responded. Am I surprised at what he's doing? Actually, I was more surprised that he didn't make it big in San Jose last year when Nabokov was holding out.

"He's been here in North America for a few [five] years now. He got the chance last year in San Jose and it didn't work out for him. So this, really, could've been the last chance for Kiprusoff. If he struggled with the chance in Calgary when Turek went down, he might've been waiting a long time for the next one."

There's no need for a next one. The one he wanted is here.

Yes, Miika Kiprusoff has enjoyed a wonderful season. But to put an exclamation point on it, to show he's really No. 1 material, the next 20 games are critical to him. And to the franchise that has given him his big break.

"I always thought I could play in the NHL. It's great to be able to play in a lot of games in a row and show what you can do. It's not going to be easy, making the playoffs. We know, though, that we can be successful if we play the way we're capable of."

"But it's not just me." adds the Kipper. "Everyone has a job to do."

Just that some, it goes without saying, are somewhat more important than others.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.