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GAME: Calgary Flames (42-30-7-3) at Vancouver Canucks (43-34-10-5).

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference quarterfinals; Game 1.

TIME: Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. EDT.

No team is subscribing to the "hot goaltender" theory more than the Calgary Flames.

Judging by Miikka Kiprusoff's performance this season, they have good reason to.

Calgary, making its first playoff appearance since 1996, will rely on the league's hottest goalie when it opens its Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Flames ended the NHL's longest playoff drought at eight years, finishing sixth in the West with 94 points - their highest total since 1993-94.

The two players most responsible for bringing the Flames back to the postseason are Kiprusoff and captain Jarome Iginla.

Kiprusoff began this season as San Jose's third-string goalie, but found new life when he was acquired by Calgary on Nov. 16. The Finnish goalie quickly became the Flames' starter and went on to set an NHL record with a 1.69 goals-against average, bettering Marty Turco's 1.72 mark set last season.

"It's how we play, it's not just my record," said Kiprusoff, who also led the league with a .933 save percentage. "I didn't think about numbers. I was just thinking about going somewhere where I was going to get a chance to play."

Even missing six weeks with a sprained knee wasn't enough to cool off Kiprusoff, who went 5-3 with a 1.63 GAA in February and 7-4-2 with a 1.98 mark in March.

Iginla is one of 14 Flames with two games or fewer of NHL playoff experience. Kiprusoff has appeared in only four postseason games, going 1-1 with a 1.91 GAA.

"They have a good team but if we play our own game we can do some damage in the playoffs, too," Kiprusoff said.

While Kiprusoff will be counted on to anchor the defense, Iginla also will need to be at the top of his game if Calgary is to win a playoff series for the first time since capturing the Stanley Cup in 1989.

Iginla scored his 41st goal of the season Sunday against Anaheim, tying him with Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk and Columbus' Rick Nash for the most in the league. Iginla has scored 128 goals the past three seasons, but hasn't been to the postseason since making his NHL debut with Calgary in the 1995-96 playoffs.

"Jarome is going to have to show he can play in this situation, and he will," Flames coach Darryl Sutter said.

The Northwest Division title didn't seem likely for the Canucks after star forward Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs for his hit on Colorado's Steve Moore on March 8.

After winning one of its first seven games (1-3-2-1) without Bertuzzi, Vancouver closed the regular season with six straight victories to pass the Avalanche for the division crown and the third seed in the West.

"It was a hard time," Canucks defenseman Marek Malik said. "We just said to ourselves: 'We can't change what happened, so try to put it behind us and move on.' We showed ourselves that we could do that. We had to do that."

Though the Canucks have proven they can win without arguably the game's best power forward, Bertuzzi's absence can be expected to have a negative impact in the playoffs. Matt Cooke has replaced Bertuzzi on the top line with Brendan Morrison and captain Markus Naslund, but isn't likely to provide the same offense.

Without Bertuzzi, trade deadline acquisitions Geoff Sanderson and Martin Rucinsky will have to contribute.

"Both Martin and Geoff have been great additions," Naslund said. "These guys have brought a lot to our lineup."

Kiprusoff is the key player for the Calgary, and the same can be said of counterpart Dan Cloutier.

Though Cloutier has joined New Jersey's Martin Brodeur as the only goalies to win 30 games each of the past three seasons, questions remain as to whether he is capable of leading a team to the Stanley Cup.

Cloutier has struggled in the postseason in his career, going 9-12 with a 3.43 GAA.

This is the first time in 10 years that the Canucks and Flames are meeting in the playoffs. Vancouver eliminated Calgary in seven games in 1994 and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.

Game 2 is Friday at Vancouver.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Flames - 94 points; 6th seed. Canucks - 101 points; 3rd seed.

TEAM LEADERS: Flames - Iginla, 41 goals and 73 points; Craig Conroy, 39 assists; Krzysztof Oliwa, 247 PIM. Canucks - Naslund, 35 goals, 49 assists and 84 points; Brad May, 137 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Flames - Power play: 15.1 percent (54 for 357), 21st in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.7 percent (293 for 346), 13th. Canucks - Power play: 14.9 percent (56 for 376), 22nd. Penalty killing: 86.1 percent (310 for 360), 3rd.

GOALTENDERS: Flames - Kiprusoff (24-10-4, 4 SO, 1.69 GAA); Roman Turek (6-11-0, 3, 2.33). Canucks - Cloutier (33-21-6, 5, 2.27); Johan Hedberg (8-6-2, 3, 2.51)

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Canucks, 3-2-1. The Canucks outscored the Flames 9-2 while going 2-0-1 at Calgary. The Flames won two of three games in Vancouver. Iginla had three goals and one assist in the series and Morrison had four goals and six points for the Canucks.

Associated Press
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