InGoal Update: Calgary’s Kiprusoff Bearing Heavy Load Again
… Plus Hiller comes off Injured Reserve, could play Thursday in Nashville; Osgood’s playoffs in doubt as emergency fill in almost gets dream shot in Detroit; and more in the March 4 update
The Western Conference playoff race is so tight it requires checking the standings on an hourly, let alone daily basis to see who is in or out as the season comes down to the wire.
Teams are bouncing in and out of the postseason like a yo-yo, taking their fans on that emotional roller coaster ride with them.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in Calgary, where the Flames teeter between redemption and disaster on a nightly basis.
In the last week Calgary lost two overtime nailbiters (one to Anaheim and the other to Los Angeles) before a 6-3 loss Wednesday night in San Jose, all teams that the Flames are desperately trying to catch. Obviously these types of games mean extra pressure for the goalie, something Miikka Kiprusoff has dealt with from Day One since his arrival in Calgary seven years ago.
Like his counterparts in other Canadian hockey hotbeds, Kiprusoff is frequently under the microscope, something that doubtless must be an added burden apart from simply trying to win the games themselves. When viewed in the larger context, his whole career in Calgary has been characterized by this ongoing polemic; one day he’s the hero, next day the goat.
Two years ago he offered up this prosaic tidbit in a Calgary Herald interview:
I’m kind of used to it … That’s how it is to be a player, a goalie in the NHL. First, you’re young and not experienced. Then, you’re old. It’s always something.
Last night in San Jose Kiprusoff was solid between the pipes, doing his best to give his squad a chance to win despite being outshot by a fair margin (38-25), while his team was dominated by a clearly better Sharks team that suffocated the Flames’ fire before pulling away. After going on a 16-3-3 run during which he started every game but one, Kiprusoff and the Flames are now 1-4-2 in the last seven outings and, with fewer games to play than the teams they are chasing, face an exceedingly steep uphill climb to get back into the playoff picture.
Kiprusoff, 34, is the only goalie to have played 400-plus games since the NHL lockout, so it goes without saying that his coaches’ faith in him. That and the absence of a truly reliable backup for most of the last five years, has put him front and center in Calgary, and as a polarizing argument among goalies throughout the rest of the NHL.
He leads the NHL in games (66) and minutes (3,851), and is top-5 in wins (33) and shutouts (6). But in the other critical statistical categories he is nowhere near the top of the list (32nd with a .905 save percentage, 28th with a 2.66 goals-against average).
So, the argument goes, is Kiprusoff a world class goalie or not?
Numbers can be crunched in a myriad of ways, and that has certainly been done on the blogs and forums of Flames fans (Tom Awad did a rather mind-boggling “bayesian” statistical analysis that put Kiprusoff 30th over the three seasons preceeding the current one). At some point, though, the bottom line is the Flames were nowhere near the playoffs at the halfway point of the season, and now they have a shot.
Clearly Kiprusoff’s win total has a lot to do with that, though he does get support from the league’s 5th-best offense. But no statistics, not even save percentage, tell us how many of his 1,636 saves this season were on grade-A chances like this last night:
The only other factor, and a significant one in a salary cap world, is whether those numbers could have been had by a younger and, most importantly, cheaper goalie. Think of any of the teams presently flying solo with a relatively inexperienced youngster (Montreal, Washington, Toronto, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit). Back in January, Globe and Mail reporter James Mirtle wrote a story about how both Kiprusoff and Toronto’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who are both earning $7-million this season, might get swept aside by the NHL’s youth movement in goal, likely to be cut loose for a cheaper and younger goalie somewhere lower down in the ranks of the organization.
Unlike Giguere, however, it’s harder to imagine any of the youngsters in Calgary’s system actually outplaying Kiprusoff.
Interim Calgary general manager Jay Feaster, who built a Stanley Cup winner in Tampa Bay around veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and whose modus operandi is to keep core players together and inspire them to buy into the team’s system, appears to agree. While other teams are gambling on younger, cheaper goaltenders, Feaster doesn’t seem to think that it is worth skimping when it comes time to spend on a prime-time netminder, recently telling USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen Kiprusoff was key to Calgary’s second-half surge up from 14th in west:
“I still think it all starts back there between the pipes … Kipper gives us a chance to win every night … Fans have been so spoiled by how good he has been for so long. He doesn’t slump like regular players. When he did, it was like ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going on with Kipper?’ You just knew that he was going to work his way through it. He is the consummate professional.”
Hiller off Injured Reserve as Emery wins third straight
As reported in this space a day earlier, Jonas Hiller is feeling a lot better after missing more than a month with vertigo symptoms.
Sure enough, the Ducks activated their All Star stopper from the injured reserve shortly before Wednesday night’s game in Dallas and was on the bench as the back up as Ray Emery backstopped Anaheim to a crucial overtime win over the Stars. All of which means Hiller could be back in net as early as tonight in Nashville as the Ducks continue a three-game road trip with back-to-back contests.
“At this point, I think I’m pretty close to be playing,” Hiller told the Orange County Register Wednesday morning. “If it goes the way it’s gone in practice, I’m not worried.”
Hiller has only played 71 minutes since taking two shots off the mask at the All Star Game in late January. He was pulled from the first game back from the break Feb. 2 after struggling and complained of lightheadedness and dizziness a day later, then pitched a shutout in his return Feb. 13 only to suffer a return of symptoms the next day. Before then, he had emerged as a Vezina Trophy candidate, with 26 wins and a .925 save percentage while playing 46 of Anaheim’ first 52 games this season.
It’s unclear what this means for Dan Ellis, who was 6-2-1 since coming over in a trade from Tampa Bay. Emery won his third straight on Wednesday – thanks to a tying goal with him on the bench for an extra attacker and 6.4 seconds left and a fifth-straight game won in overtime – but is an unrestricted free agent this summer, while Ellis is under contract for next season at $1.5 million. For now, though, the Ducks are just happy to have their first-half MVP back as they try to complete a playoff drive.
Osgood injury aggravation almost gives amateur dream shot
When Chris Osgood was forced to beg off his first start since sports hernia surgery last week and send the Red Wings scrambling to recall Joey MacDonald (who promptly posted his first shutout in Detroit and second in the NHL), he shrugged it off as scar tissue breaking up and said he wasn’t worried.
“You work through it,” he told the Detroit News at the time. “When I take a day off, or two, it feels a lot better. I feel fine. It’s the same as before, breaking through scar tissue. When you break through (the tissue) it feels like it’s hurting again.”
Osgood wasn’t talking Wednesday, but after being placed back on the long term injured reserve, it appears that process – if not a more serious concern – has put his playoffs in jeopardy. Not that Osgood was part of the postseason plan, but the Red Wings would have preferred to have the three-time Stanley Cup winner in game shape on the bench behind second-year starter Jimmy Howard.
Now, because the Red Wings’ salary cap situation forced Osgood back onto long term injured reserve, he isn’t even eligible to return until the final weekend of the season, when the Red Wings close with two games against Chicago April 8 and 10. Considering he hasn’t played since Jan. 4, and was out more than a month after Jan. 11 sports hernia surgery, it’s hardy ideal playoff preparation.
“At this point, we feel it’s best to shut him down for three or four days and then start all over again,” Detroit general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press. “We’re 10 weeks out from when he had surgery, and basically back to where we were a month ago. Chris is frustrated. I’m frustrated. Mike Babcock is frustrated. I think everyone is frustrated. … We don’t know what Chris’ status is heading into the playoffs. We have to get him healthy. Right now, he’s not close.”
Detroit’s frustration almost led to the opportunity of a lifetime for Troy Passingham, who recently wrapped up his junior career in the Ontario Hockey League and was summoned from his girlfriend’s house in nearby Windsor, Ontario to fill a net for the Red Wings during the morning skate. The 20-year-old was set to sign an amateur contract and dress as Howard’s backup for Wednesday’s tilt with the Vancouver Canucks, but those plans were scuttled when MacDonald was able to make it back from the AHL in time for the game.
So instead of following in the skate strides of emergency backups Jordan White and Tom Fenton, Passingham, who was never drafted and expects to continue playing and get an education in the Canadian University system, had to settle for a practice experience like the one Florida Panthers’ forward Marty Reasoner helped his puck-stopping, bond trading older brother Adam get the day before.
“I’m just happy to be here and watch these guys play,” Passingham said. “Obviously there was a lot of excitement and a really long day. You get butterflies, but that’s hockey. You’ve just got to be ready. Maybe, I’ll be sitting on the bench. Maybe I’ll read a book.”
Actually, if he had sat on the bench, Passingham would have been charting faceoffs, holding a clip-board like a backup quarterback in the NFL, something Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has long asked of his non-starting goalies.
Instead, Passingham, who has a career save percentage just below .900 in three OHL seasons, will have to settle for practice.
Luongo quietly making his Vezina Trophy bid
Boston’s Tim Thomas leads the most important statistic by a significant margin with a .937 save percentage. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne isn’t far behind, and like Montreal’s Carey Price is getting warranted buzz as league MVP candidates for the crucial roles they play in their team’s success. In New York Henrik Lundqvist deserves similar attention with a league-leading 10 shutouts.
Don’t forget Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, though. Playing less thanks to the emergence of rookie backup Cory Schneider, and playing more conservatively in his crease under new goalie coach Roland Melanson, Luongo has overcome a predictably slow start to move into the top-5 in the three most important categories with a .926 save percentage (3rd to Thomas and Rinne), 2.21 goals-against average (also trailing Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, another overlooked contender), and tied with Price and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard for the league lead with 34 wins (despite playing 10 fewer games than his Canadiens’ counterpart). Most importantly, as he demonstrated with these two saves below during a 39-save 2-1 win over the Red Wings Wednesday, Luongo says he has never been a better goalie: