|Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has been under constant pressure from Mike Grier and the
Sharks throughout their quarterfinal series, but he
remains unfazed heading into Tuesday's Game 7.
Sharks-Flames Game 6 highlights
We all know that a Game 7 is filled with anticipation and plenty of speculation, but the 31-year-old goaltender from Turku, Finland, has seen it all, heard it all and he's proven he can withstand it all -- having won the Vezina Trophy as the game's best goalie following a 42-win, 10-shutout season in 2005-06.
This season? He's had to overcome the mind games of coach Mike Keenan, who has been known to yank netminders from games to make them more mentally tough.
After stopping all 21 San Jose shots Sunday in a 2-0 victory to force a Game 7 in Northern California Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, CBC, RIS), Kiprusoff faces yet another understudy-vs. -the-goalkeeper-the-Sharks-kept scenario against his old Sharks teammate Evgeni Nabokov.
The setting is sort of surreal. But you wouldn't know it if you've been around Kiprusoff. He's always the same -- calm and uncomplicated.
"Everyone says I'm calm. I guess I am. That's me," he said. "Everyone should be how they are most comfortable."
Funny, but ...
"I grew up watching hockey, watching my dad play goal," Kiprusoff told me a while back. "I remember always sitting in the stands watching hockey back then. I'd watch my dad and kind of rock to my left or right to make the same kind of save he was making on the ice. My wanting to become a goaltender kind of started there.
I also remember hearing fans around me, how you say ... yeah, razz, my dad after he let in a bad goal."
So he knows fans and critics are part of the game. Oh, yeah, and coaches.
"I remember the goalie coach we had on the Finnish national team telling me that I go down too much in the butterfly and I'll never make it as a goalie at a high level because of that."
The smile and calm and quiet approach of Kiprusoff shows that while he's an emotional man inside, he never lets the outside temperature and pressures let him boil over.
It's been a wild range of emotions for Kipper this season and this series alone. He won Game 1 in the Shark Tank, stopping 37 of 39 shots. He was yanked in Game 3 in favor of veteran backup Curtis Joseph after surrendering three goals on just five shots. And he posted his sixth playoff shutout in Game 6.
It's been 4 1/2 years since that fateful Nov. 16, 2003 phone call Kiprusoff took at his modestly furnished San Jose hotel room. It was Sharks GM Doug Wilson telling him he no longer had to sit behind Nabokov and Vesa Toskala on San Jose's goaltender depth chart, that he would be getting to play regularly in Calgary.
"I remember I was sitting there in my room, looking to see what movie I might watch, when the phone rang. For me, hockey had become monotonous. Practice, practice and more practice. No games. ... for what, five or six weeks ... " Kiprusoff told me back then. "When I heard Doug Wilson’s voice on the phone, I got a little excited. I knew the Sharks had a decision to make with three goalies on the roster.
"When Doug said; ‘Go to the rink, get your gear and head to the airport. You’ll be in Calgary in about three hours.’ Well, I ... uh ... well ... a million things were running through my head. But the best was that someone wanted me ... Darryl Sutter (his old coach with the Sharks) wanted me. I had a lot of people I wanted to call. But I didn’t have time. I had to go."
Tuesday night, he has to win.
"You can't think about things that way," Kiprusoff said. "A goalie has to give his team a chance to win, plain and simple. It's one game ... and we have to win it."
There's no masking the obvious, goaltending is never more important than in the playoffs, when every shift, every shot and every save is magnified 10,000 times. The recipe for playoff success is hard work, timely scoring, good defense, a few lucky bounces, shrewd coaching and great goaltending. Goaltending is the most important ingredient, because shaky goaltending can make a good team mediocre and great goaltending can transform a mediocre team into a champion.
On that November day in 2003, Kiprusoff became Calgary's present and future in goal. Today? He's their no-tomorrow netminder.
"What did I like about him?" Sutter said, with a mischievous look on his face. "I remember thinking, Miikka’s an experienced NHL goaltender, he’s played and won in the playoffs -- and he’s not 40-years-old."
A smile crossed Sutter’s face with the 40-year-old crack.
There was no smile on the face of Keenan prior to Game 6, when he said point blank; "Our goalie has to give us his best game. I think he can perform better than he has performed."
The rest of the Flames know what Kiprusoff has done for them.
"With some goalies you get a lot of baggage -- you know, quirky, superstitious, crazy," Flames captain Jarome Iginla explained. "With Miikka, we hardly know he’s around most of the time. But on the ice, he can change the momentum of a game in a blink with one of his saves. Some of the saves he’s made can, well, be contagious -- and we all get caught up in the momentum.
"I’ve never seen a goalie so calm and relaxed and confident -- a confidence that has carried over to the rest of the team."
Before arriving in Calgary, Kiprusoff had a 14-21-3 NHL record and 2.84 goals-against average. He was a disappointing 5-14-0 with a 3.25 goals-against average when the Sharks gave him a shot at being No. 1 in 2002-03 when Nabokov was out at the start of the season in a contract dispute and while battling through an injury.
His resume boasts of plenty of positives since coming to Calgary -- and there's little chance that he will have a Flame-out in Game 7. He comes into that locker room every night with a hunger to prove the scouts wrong for missing him. Add to that the demotion to No. 3 in San Jose before his trade to Calgary and you have plenty of incentive on Miikka's side.
And if that isn't enough, Miikka Kiprusoff knows from those days when he sat in the stands and watched his dad played goal back in Finland and listened to fans razz him that being in goal is clearly a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately job.