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LACE 'EM UP, JUUSO

Valimaki gets the nod for Game 4 tonight and will skate alongside Andersson

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

DENVER - Everything about his habitual, game-day routine stayed the same. 

From the breakfast he had, to the order of dress, and even his inclusion in the pre-game warmup, all of it was done to stay as ready as possible.

Tonight, the preparation pays off. 

Even if the straggly playoff beard is still in its infancy. 

"It's coming," Juuso Valimaki, hearing the salvos from his grizzled D partner, Rasmus Andersson across the aisle, said after the morning skate at the Pepsi Center. "We've got a long run ahead of us.

"I should have taken like a two-month head start, probably."

While he may not look the part just yet, the 20-year-old rookie certainly has the poise of a seasoned vet. 

He's often praised for having ice water in his veins, the pressure of the 'big game' weathered away by his many experiences - both winning and losing - with the Finnish National Team. 

"He doesn't ever get rattled from the pressure," said Andersson, who's playing the part of the 'greybeard' with a lofty three games of NHL playoff experience under his belt. "His calmness with the puck - everything. 

"I expect him to be good.

"We talked a little bit this morning, and just tried to keep him loose. Not that he needs it. I just told him to play his own game and to have some fun out there."

While the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a different animal entirely, the rangy rearguard swears he's not the least bit nervous about making his debut in Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round. 

"I'm just pumped to get out there," Valimaki said, speaking to a scrum of least 15 reporters at a make-shift stall in Colorado's cozy visiting locker-room. "Even during warmups, the music is loud and there's a lot of people. 

"I live for that. 

"Even when you're on the road and the fans aren't cheering for you, I like the energy. It will be a lot of fun tonight."

 

Video: "It's going to be a lot of fun."

 

While Valimaki - who will take over for Oscar Fantenberg on the third pair tonight - played the role of a spectator in the first three games, he did everything possible to soak up the experience and be ready, if called upon. 

Warmup included. 

But he admits - with the music blaring and the crowd buzzing - it was tough to finish up early, skate off, and swap his gear for a suit and a seat in the press box. 

As a rookie, he just had to be patient. Wait his turn. 

But most importantly, continue to push himself.

"I talked to the coaches and they told me to be ready at all times," Valimaki said. "Obviously, these games are late and when you play at 8 p.m., it's not a regular time to be awake and ready to play, so it's been important to be with the team, take warmups and kind of prepare yourself to play, even if you're not. I think that will help me tonight.

"You obviously want to play, but I think watching those games kind of helped me, too. When you're watching the game, you want to learn so when you do get in, you want to use that to your advantage. I think I took it the right way and I'm ready to go."

 

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Valimaki has played 24 games with the Flames this year, scoring once and adding two helpers, while averaging nearly 16 minutes of ice time. 

His rookie campaign took a sharp, left turn when he suffered a lower-body injury back on Nov. 23, forcing him to miss more than two months of action after a promising start at the National Hockey League level. 

He worked his way back with 20 games in AHL Stockton, before returning to the Flames late in the campaign and played two of the final three regular-season dates to ensure he was ready for the playoffs. 

According to head coach Bill Peters, that time with the Heat did wonders. 

And with speed becoming more of a theme in this heated, first-round matchup, Valimaki's injection should give the Flames a bit of a boost on the backend. 

"What I like about Vali, when he came back, you could tell that he was bigger," the bench boss said. "He grew. He's a kid, right? He's leaner, he's stronger, he's quicker, everything. He did a great job and the coaches down in Stockton with a great job with him. His weight's up, his body fat's down - he's a good athlete.

"We expect him to come in and be fearless."
 

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