Why they're here? Kiprusoff, Khabibulin

Updated: June 4, 2004, 10:30 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

CALGARY -- Here's pretty much all you need to know about the goaltending in the Stanley Cup finals:

Through Game 5, Miikka Kiprusoff, netminder for the Calgary Flames, has 15 wins, a 1.82 goals-against average a .931 save percentage and five shutouts in postseason play.

Nikolai Khabibulin
Nikolai Khabibulin had a solid regular season, but he's been even more stellar in the playoffs.
His counterpart, Nikolai Khabibulin of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has 14 wins, a 1.76 GAA, a .932 save percentage and five shutouts.

Khabibulin's nickname is "Bulin Wall," a morphing of the "bulin" part of Khabibulin and a reference to the Berlin Wall.

In true hockey tradition, Kiprusoff is called "Kipper," but he's also been tabbed "Ice Man," "Mr. Zero," "The Fantastic Finn" and the principal reason why the Flames, who finished sixth in the Western Conference, are on the brink of winning the Stanley Cup.

These guys aren't just good; they are the living, breathing essence of their respective teams. They are the bottom-line reason the Lightning and Flames have progressed this far.

Buried in the San Jose system, Kiprusoff came to the Flames when head coach Darryl Sutter, also the team's general manager, was in need of a replacement netminder for the injured Roman Turek. He quickly obtained Kiprusoff from his old team, the San Jose Sharks, and Kiprusoff quickly made the No. 1 job his own.

"He has a great work ethic," said David Marcouk, the Flames' goaltending coach. "That's a strength, but his flexibility is amazing. He'll spend upwards of three hours just doing stretching exercises to keep himself limber."

Khabibulin, 31, always had talent. At 20, he was a non-starter on the 1992 Russia team that won an Olympic gold medal. At 23, he was MVP of the Winnipeg Jets and, at 26, was an All-Star for the reincarnation of the Jets, the Phoenix Coyotes. In one of the most protracted contract disputes in NHL history, he was out of the league for almost two years before then-Tampa GM Rick Dudley obtained him from the 'Yotes to rescue the franchise.

Despite being tagged for three goals, he was the best Lightning player on the ice Thursday in Tampa's 3-2 double-overtime loss to the Flames.

"If you're going to get this far in the playoffs, your goaltender has to be your best player," said Tampa coach John Tortorella. "Nik has been that player for us."

The strength of Khabibulin's game is his physical play and positioning. He's ultra-quick, has a strong glove hand that is virtually unbeatable down low and has the physical ability to recover from a difficult position to be ready for the next shot.

In years past, Khabibulin was viewed as something of a "streaky" goaltender. The high highs were spectacular, but when the run ended, the falloff was so pronounced that his coaches would sometimes turn to the backup goalie for a succession of starts. Khabibulin also had a problem with bad goals. Once he let one in, he tended to dwell on it, often opening up for two or three more.

It's different now. At 31, he's much more balanced, more committed to excellence and, according to teammate Brad Lukowich, better able to take the bitter with the sweet.

Miikka Kiprusoff
Miikka Kiprusoff could win a Stanley Cup in only his first full season as a No. 1 goalie.
"It used to be he would beat himself up pretty good over a bad goal, but he's much more able to refocus now," said the Tampa defenseman.

"I think early on Nik always showed you talent, but he didn't have the stability in his game to be at the elite level," added team captain Dave Andreychuk. "Mentally, he's had to struggle to break through as an elite player, but he's done that now."

That's been said before of Khabibulin, but it now appears to ring true. Heading into Game 6 in Calgary, he is 6-0 after a playoff loss and has a stunning 0.83 goals-against average through those games. That's a big part of Tampa's hope of winning Saturday and forcing a Game 7, and it's a far cry from the past, when Tortorella had to yank Khabibulin from games because he lost concentration.

Concentration has never been an issue for the 27-year-old Kiprusoff. Mental toughness, coupled with outrageous quickness, are the strengths of his game.

"I think it goes without saying that the biggest reason we're here, the biggest reason we became a playoff team, was because of him," said Calgary coach Darryl Sutter.

That flexibility, coupled with natural quickness, makes Kiprusoff difficult to beat down low and from post to post. Most teams try to beat him high, but he also has a strong glove hand. Since he plays more of a hybrid style (part butterfly, part standup given the situation), he rarely gives away the top of the net.

Teams will try to work Kiprusoff high on the stick side, but also resort to jamming the crease to create screens. They also to rough him up physically. He is seriously thin; although he is listed at 190 pounds, that number may be a stretch.

"He's pretty tough mentally," said Calgary defenseman Mike Commodore. "Win or lose he doesn't seem to let the situation affect him. He's pretty good at playing the puck and allowing us to make plays with it. You never see him panic back there."

The only flaws in his game may be puck handling and plays originating from behind the net. That's the way Martin St. Louis scored Tampa's first goal Thursday. But Kiprusoff works with religious fervor on correcting his weaknesses.

Unlike goaltenders from Stanley Cup finals of the recent past, both men are media shy. They stay away from the podium in postgame situations and are difficult to find in the locker room and the hallways in their respective buildings.

Khabibulin will sometimes make a postgame appearance in the locker room, but he rarely talks about his play, even to teammates.

"You might say 'great game,' and he'll sometimes say thanks, but usually he'll just say it was 'OK' or that it could have been better," said Tampa defenseman Jassen Cullimore. "It's like he's always looking for perfection and isn't happy with himself. I think he's happy with the win, but it's like he's always pushing himself to be better even when he gets a shutout."

Tortorella said Khabibulin is at an age where he wants to be recognized among the game's elite. A Cup could do that for both him and the Lightning.

Marcouk said Kiprusoff, the son of an elite Finnish goaltender, already has that mindset and sees the playoffs as a forum in which to prove it.

"He has something to prove, and I think that drives him," said Marcouk. "He waited a long time to emerge, but at the same time he's very confident in his abilities. I think that comes from his upbringing. He's pretty much been doing this since he was 8 [years old]."

Kiprusoff is also 8-1 following a playoff loss and rebounded smartly from the Game 5 defeat at Calgary with a grind-it-out win in Game 6. It was his fifth straight overtime win in the playoffs since losing a triple-overtime game to Vancouver in the sixth game of the first round.

Since neither goalie has ever been this far before, it's almost impossible to predict which one will win his first-ever Cup.

Kiprusoff, at least, gets the first shot.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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