VANCOUVER – Calgary goaltender Leland Irving is from Alberta, but the rookie backup proved again on Friday night that he feels right at home in Vancouver.
Maybe it's because he played junior hockey a couple hours down the road in Washington State. Maybe it's because the fans from that team traveled by the dozens to see him picked in the first round (No. 26), here in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Or maybe it was all the fans from Flames' AHL affiliate in nearby Abbotsford, B.C., where he has played the last three seasons and was named team MVP in 2010-11, who made the two-hour drive to cheer him on against the Canucks.
Irving wasn't sure why, and judging by his permanent smile after making 16 of his 29 saves in the third period to preserve a 3-1 win -- his first in the NHL -- he didn't care.
"I don't know what it is about this city," Irving said. "The draft. I think I got a win in the Summit Series (against a team of Russian All Stars) as well, and now first NHL win."
Seeing Abbotsford fans helped -- "I saw them with Heat jerseys on so that was pretty special," Irving said -- but not as much as his first NHL start, a 3-2 shootout loss in Florida on Dec. 16 in which he was named the game's first star after making 39 saves.
"There's always nerves to a certain extent, some games more than others," Irving said. "But I was able to feel a lot more comfortable tonight compared to the first game."
The 23-year-old got some help 2:30 into the third period from defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who made a diving save with the puck lying behind Irving and the net empty to keep the game scoreless. Curtis Glencross scored the opening goal six seconds later after Calgary captain Jarome Iginla beat Dan Hamhuis to avoid an icing call and threw the puck out to Glencross alone in front for a quick shot over Roberto Luongo's glove.
"Big timing for us," said Glencross, who has scored five times during a four-game goal streak. "They had some pressure on us that shift and we came down and Iggy chased down the icing, and I came up late and he made a great pass to me."
Irving threw out the left pad on Chris Higgins' shorthanded breakaway three minutes later, and Mikael Backlund made it 2-0 with 5:52 left. Hamhuis scored with 3:01 left to spoil Irving's shutout bid as the Canucks, sluggish to start, woke up with 17 third-period shots. But Irving robbed Daniel Sedin on a rebound chance that would have tied it with one minute left, and Olli Jokinen scored into an empty net.
"Last save was unbelievable," said Backlund, who played with Irving in Abbotsford for a year. "He was really calm and gave us a lot of confidence. One of many wins to come."
Irving certainly seems to have the confidence of his coach after helping Calgary win its third in a row to move within two points of eighth-place Nashville in the West. It was also the Flames' first regulation win against Vancouver in 13 games, ending a 10-0-2 run by the Canucks.
"Another rock solid effort, very poised," said Brent Sutter. "A couple saves he made in the last 2 1/2, three minutes of the game were obviously huge, but just very much under control and the guys are very confident playing in front of him."
Irving wasn't busy early, and said it didn't help watching Luongo made four highlight-reel stops as the Flames got the first eight shots through the opening five minutes.
"I'm not going to try and match a guy like Roberto Luongo, he's on a level of his own," he said. "But it's pretty cool to see a guy like that 200 feet from me in the other net and playing the way he did tonight. It means a lot to come out of here with two points."
Both teams were coming off home wins over Detroit -- the Canucks 4-2 on Wednesday and Calgary 3-2 on Thursday -- but it was hard to tell Vancouver had the extra day off. Despite playing the night before and arriving late, the Flames controlled the play early.
After Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa bloodied Tom Kostopoulos in a fight off the opening draw, the Flames had the game's first eight shots. They forced Luongo to make great saves on four of them, including a flashy glove stop off Rene Bourque, back after a two-game suspension, in the slot 10 seconds in. But the Canucks didn't manage much at the other end until the third period.
"You're not going to win every game," said Luongo, who made 28 saves but lost in regulation for the first time in nine starts (7-1-1). "We obviously weren't good enough, and those guys were desperate. They needed the points, and played a great road game."
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was shocked by his team's performance, especially after winning seven of the last nine to get a chance to leapfrog Minnesota for top spot in the Northwest Division for the first time this season.
"We were just terrible. There's no other way to put it. Shocked," he said. "We've got divisional rivals coming in, gave the guys the day off yesterday. Was expecting a lot more, didn't happen. … I've seen our goaltenders keep us in to help us find our legs and our execution and our hands. That's certainly what our goaltender did for 57 minutes tonight.
"We're playing against the Calgary Flames, one of our best rivals in hockey -- got to be able to get up for this."
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