CHICAGO – Reto Berra felt the nerves building prior to his NHL debut Sunday night against the defending Stanley Cup champions at United Center.
The 26-year old rookie goaltender had just been called up from Abbotsford of the American Hockey League to join the Calgary Flames and coach Bob Hartley decided to toss the talented 6-foot-4 rookie straight into the fire against the Chicago Blackhawks.
After calling Berra a "thoroughbred" following the Flames' morning skate, Hartley looked pretty smart. Berra made 42 saves and earned his first win when Kris Russell scored 1:32 into overtime in a 3-2 victory.
"Honestly I had a lot of thoughts," Berra said, while wearing the Flames' fire helmet given out to each game's hardest worker. "Everything went through my mind. Right after lunch I always sleep, but today I couldn't sleep. I was really nervous. But right before the game, when I was just sitting in here, I just thought, ‘Go out and play your game and have fun. You have nothing to lose.' I put the excitement and nerves into a positive energy."
It was a force that was bolstered even more by the traditional singing of the Canadian and U.S. anthems. Berra said he was forewarned about how stirring the American version is in Chicago, but still wasn't quite prepared.
"Crazy … awesome," he said, when asked to describe his emotions standing in front of the Flames' net. "I almost cried and, like, my hair stand up. The guys, they told me a little bit what to expect, but when you're out there as a goalie, on the ice, it is really, like, unbelievable."
Some of the saves Berra made in stopping the Blackhawks' 18 first-period shots were also pretty remarkable. He stopped 29 of the first 30 he saw and helped the Flames thwart a 5-on-3 situation late in the third for 1:42 before Marian Hossa's well-placed one-timer tied it 2-2 during 5-on-4 play.
Russell's blast from the blue line 92 seconds into overtime gave Calgary the second point in the standings and Berra his first win, not to mention the fire helmet award. Acquired by Calgary in the trade that sent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to the St. Louis Blues last season, Berra declined to play another season in the Swiss League and came to North America with the NHL in his sights.
After playing nine games in the AHL, he's now expected to stick around in Calgary to share playing time with Karri Ramo and possibly work his way into the starting role.
"I'm very proud for Reto," Hartley said. "He played tonight the same way as I've seen him play for a full year in Switzerland. Obviously, it's not the same caliber [of competition], but just the poise that he showed throughout the game … he never got rattled and was in perfect control on every shot. The two shots that beat him were perfect shots."
The Blackhawks found out why Hartley is so excited by Berra. Patrick Kane, who played with Berra in Switzerland during the lockout last season, scored with a great wrist shot early in the second to give Chicago a short-lived 1-0 lead.
Curtis Glencross, who had the primary assist on Russell's game-winner, tied it 1-1 a little more than two minutes later and Mike Cammalleri gave the Flames (6-6-2) a 2-1 lead 2:16 into the third. That led to Hossa's game-tying goal at 15:41 of the final period, which he one-timed past Berra from the right circle off a feed by Kane.
"Well, I think you look at [Berra] a little bit before the game and he's a big guy and you're going to need traffic to beat him," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "We did put pucks [at the net], but we didn't get enough rebounds and we didn't get enough traffic. He was pretty good controlling those rebounds tonight, as well."
Berra was also good enough to help Calgary snap a 10-game regular-season losing streak at United Center.
"He made some big saves early trying to get us in the game and that was huge," Russell said. "It's a spark … I thought we should've come out a little bit better for him, but that's the reason he's here. He made some good saves early and helped us out."
The new goalie also instilled confidence in his teammates with a number of stops that left the Blackhawks shaking their heads or banging sticks on the ice out of frustration. Hartley hopes that "positive energy" Berra referred to carries over into what's likely to be his next start on Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, in the second leg of a four-game road trip.
"When you feel like your goalie is on [his] game and every shot's not an adventure, the players feed of this," Hartley said. "You could tell from the bench. It's a game of mistakes and as much as you don't want to make mistakes there will always be some. But guys were very focused on the bench. Everyone was under control, and I think it started with Reto."
As for the Blackhawks, the 2013 Cup champs will put the final capper on their title Monday by flying to Washington, D.C., and visiting the White House. They'll leave knowing they had a chance to sweep their third back-to-back set of 18 on the schedule, snapping a three-game win streak in the process.
"I thought the last three games were the way we had to play," Quenneville said. "I thought we had a little drop-off in our game, but we knew going into the game it was going to be a hard game. They play with a purpose and offensively they make plays around your end and around your net … they make you play a hard game."