- George Johnson, NHL
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Miikka Kiprusoff has apparently just shaken a touch of flu. But, try as he might, he can't seem to shake the inconsistencies.
"You want to sit down?" he asks, moving aside some items in his dressing stall for an interrogator. "I don't think anyone else will want to talk to me."
The Calgary Flames had only just tiptoed past the apple-cheeked Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 on Tuesday. The game marked Kiprusoff's first win in four starts. Yet there was little reason for celebration for the 2006 Vezina Trophy winner.
It's still an ongoing struggle to recapture the everyday magic.
And on Thursday, Kiprusoff returns to the Shark Tank, the scene of undoubtedly the most bitter personal embarrassment of his Roman-candle-like Calgary career -- the inexplicable hook from hook-happy coach Mike Keenan in Game 7 of the San Jose Sharks-Flames series in April.
The Magnificent Miikka continues to be the Mortal Miikka.
And, for the Flames, that isn't going to be near enough to fulfill the extravagant ambitions they've set for themselves.
When the sun rose on southern Alberta on Wednesday, Kiprusoff had logged more minutes than any other NHL goaltender (959.38), but ranked a miserable 30th in goals-against average (3.31) and 27th in save percentage (.889).
"That's for you guys to judge, isn't it?" said Kiprusoff when asked to grade his own play through 16 starts.
Such has been Kiprusoff's brilliance over the past few seasons, whenever the silent Finn would hit a bit of a bad patch, the many frailties he made up for, the undetected problems he glossed over, the countless messes he covered up would become appallingly apparent to even the most undiscerning eye.
He's always been a slow starter, but it wasn't supposed to be that way this season. This September, he arrived at training camp in superior physical condition (everyone was informed of this), eager to make amends for a un-Kipper-like 2007-08 and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt it was nothing more than an indiscriminate blip on the radar screen. His differences with Keenan were apparently patched up over the summer. No hard feelings. Let bygones be bygones. Just strap on the pads and go.
But it hasn't gone entirely according to plan.
"He's in a tough position," said a fella who knows about such things, four-time Stanley Cup-winning Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr. "If you're not great every night, [if] you're only good, people are asking 'What's wrong?' Because you've conditioned them to expect great."
Kiprusoff has fluctuated wildly so far. He started atrociously, torched for six goals in the season opener versus the Vancouver Canucks at GM Place. Later, he rallied through a six-game winning streak, making many believe he rediscovered the old rhythm. But, of late, he has fallen on hard times again.
On Tuesday night, the young Leafs had a lot of nothing to offer in the way of attack, yet pulled to within one, 4-3, on two late strikes. The final goal, with 53.4 left, came off a Craig Conroy defensive faceoff win that fluttered past a dozing Kiprusoff.
"Crazy," he muttered after the game. "Just a bad bounce."
Not all his ills can be so easily explained away.
Is the workload of the past few seasons catching up to him?
At 32, are the skills that made him so dominant eroding ever-so-slightly?
Is he the victim of his own past brilliance, doomed to be compared to his peak years, when there was no one better on the planet?
Are the Flames just not up to snuff in front of him?
Or is this merely another customarily slow start, a bit of rough road he'll ride through before jamming on the accelerator down the superhighway?
Whatever the reasoning, the Flames are tied to Kiprusoff -- and not only contractually, to the tune of $35 million over this and the next five seasons. He is the man. With Curtis McElhinney and his six career NHL games waiting in the bullpen, the Flames' fate is Kiprusoff's responsibility.
No one reasonably expects the silent Finn to see as much duty as, say, Fuhr did for the Blues some 13 years ago. After signing Fuhr as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 1995, Keenan went about squeezing every dollar spent on the goalie, using Fuhr in a whopping 79 games, a record that still stands.
Fuhr scoffed at the Kiprusoff-wearing-down theory.
"Actually, I quite enjoyed the work," said Fuhr, now the goaltending consultant for the Phoenix Coyotes. "To know you're going to be in there every night is what we all want. Jon Casey and Bruce Racine were the other goalies in St. Louis that year. They had a tougher job than I did. They had to sit around wondering when they would play, if they would ever play, caught in those mind games.
"Me? I just went out and stopped pucks," Fuhr said. "Hey, there's a reason we're all in this game. It's to play. Tired? Naw. I don't remember feeling tired. The only time you feel tired is when your mind is tired. I'd be surprised if [Kiprusoff] doesn't play at least 75. He's how old? Well, I was no spring chicken in '95, either.
"Besides, he seems to enjoy playing a lot like I did. And nothing much seems to bother him. That's the best thing a goaltender can have -- a short memory."
That convenient memory loss is one of the differences Rogers SportsNet analyst John Garrett, the old goalie, sees in the Miikka of today, as opposed to the vintage model of 2003-04.
"The game is different from 2004," Garrett said. "The Flames were a real rodeo team then. One shot, they'd tie you up and dump the puck out. Now, goalies are seeing a lot more quality shots, because of the rules.
"A lot of nights, [Kiprusoff] is not getting much help. You can certainly see a difference in him. Miikka used to have a bad game, lose big, and you knew -- knew -- he was going to be lights out, 40 shots, one goal against for the next five. Now, he lets in a couple, the shoulders drop, you can see the frustration in his posture. He's questioning himself, it looks like to me."
In what is shaping up to be a claustrophobic Western Conference, with five points separating third from 13th as of Thursday morning, the Kiprusoff factor remains. With him in form, the Flames can claim the Northwest and that coveted third seed. Without that, it's wide open for discussion.
So, Calgary seeks more magnificence from Miikka, with mere mortality being for other, lesser beings.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
10hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com