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Hiller ready to roll with second-consecutive start

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames

All I can do is work hard in practice. I’ve definitely had more practice than I’ve hoped for, but it’s all I can do and stay positive and take advantage of the opportunity I do get.Jonas Hiller

CALGARY, AB -- Goaltender Jonas Hiller has a pretty good poker face.

He outlasted each and every one of his teammates at the 11th annual Flames Ambassadors Celebrity Poker Tournament on Thursday -- an event that raised $410,000 for the Calgary Flames Foundation; bringing the total raised through the poker event to $3.9 million in 11 years.

And he’s not even a fan of the card game.

“It’s not my favourite game, but it was alright for the fact that I was kind of looking forward to going home at some point,” said Hiller, who admitted the annual tournament is the only time he plays. “Once you’re out there and you have just a few teammates standing you try to keep going. It worked out really well and was a great cause. It was really good.

“There were probably five or six tables left by the time I left. It must’ve been the top-50 or something. It ended up being close to 10 when I left. It was a fun night.”

He’s had a string of them lately, it seems.

After going over a month between starts, Hiller made 15 saves in a 6-0 blanking of the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, an effort overshadowed ever so slightly by a four-goal performance from 19-year-old Sam Bennett.

It’ll earn him another chance Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers.

“At the end, it’s the coach’s decision,” Hiller said. “All I can do is just play as good as I can. I played pretty well last game, so it’s nice to see that he gives me another chance. I’m trying not to look too far ahead and just trying to take the games I get and do the best I can and play as best as possible.”

Before earning his first shutout of the year and 23rd of his career at the expense of Jaromir Jagr and the Panthers, Hiller had sat idle while fellow netminder Karri Ramo rattled off 12 consecutive appearances.

Hiller didn’t see a minute of action during the stretch, which ran from Dec. 15-Jan. 11.

The run started after Hiller, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, had won back-to-back contests with both goalies battling illness.

His poker face didn’t waver the entire time.

“It’s not always easy to stay positive but I do my best,” Hiller said. “All I can do is work hard in practice. I’ve definitely had more practice than I’ve hoped for, but it’s all I can do and stay positive and take advantage of the opportunity I do get.”

Now, Hiller’s knocking on the door of four wins in a row following a blanking that’s earned him another shot.

“I really liked his game,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “Any goalie that gets a shutout…it’s pretty tough to say that he didn’t get a good game. The first two periods, I felt that we didn’t give much. It was a pretty easy game. He made three, four great saves in the third period. He kept his shutout. Maybe it had no effect on the game at that point, but you have to give him credit. He battled. He had a great start. You could see his focus.

“He deserves another start.”

After starting a team-high 44 games last year, the 33-year-old has 10 through the first half of the season.

It’s not the workload he was hoping for. Instead, that labour has come in practice.

It’s given the goalie, who has a 3.40 goals against average and .870 save percentage, a chance to reset.

“If you go out there not knowing you’re stopping it or not being sure of yourself, that’s when things get tough,” Hiller said. “Having that time to work on certain situations kind of gives you that confidence back. Sure, in a game it’s a different situation but it definitely helps to feel good in practice, you also feel good in games.”

PACIFIC DIVISION PUNCH

Last season, the Flames shredded Pacific Division opponents. This year, they’ve been on the opposite end.

After posting a 22-6-1 record against the Pacific in 2014-15, Calgary has slumped to just a 4-8-1 record through the opening half of the season. It’s something that needs to be remedied if the Flames hope to push for a second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They can start as early as Saturday against the Oilers.

“It’s definitely key,” said Hiller, whose Flames are 2-1-0 against Edmonton this season. “It was probably why we made the playoffs last year. We had a great record in the division and the conference. This year it hasn’t been our strength. Every game you lose against those guys you pretty much lose four points. The situation we’re in, it’s even more important. We definitely want to win that game.”

Calgary won all five games against Edmonton and the Arizona Coyotes last season, and went 4-1-0 against each of the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. Only the Anaheim Ducks had a winning record against the Flames in 2014-15, taking six of a possible 10 points in the season series.

“With 40 games left, every game is very important,” Hartley said. “At the same time, divisional games, it’s those four-point games. You lose one, you need to win two against the other conference to make up that group, and those teams that beat you need to lose. It’s pretty easy math to do. Competition is tough. Obviously against our division we need to be better.”

NOTES: There’s “a very good chance” forward Michael Frolik will return to Calgary’s lineup Saturday in Edmonton, according to Hartley. Frolik has missed 12 games because of an upper-body injury. Jiri Hudler is expected to miss the game because of a lingering groin injury. Hudler did practice, but left early. “He was telling us he was good, but this morning getting on the ice, it was clear that it was not good,” Hartley said. “He wanted to go for a skate and obviously after a while he told the trainers, ‘I just can’t go.’” Defenseman Kris Russell did not skate in practice. He was given a maintenance day.

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