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Goalie keeps Flames happy

On the ice, it's his sterling performances. Off it, it's his humor.

BRANT JAMES
Published May 27, 2004

BRANDON - Miikka Kiprusoff's bashful demeanor belies the way he has helped drag the Flames from the periphery of the playoffs to within three wins of a Stanley Cup title. Hands jammed into jeans pockets, wide eyes staring ahead, he speaks with a thick Finnish accent in barely audible snippets.

But Kiprusoff is not all he seems. On the ice, he is a demanding, aggressive goaltender whose record-setting 38-game run helped the Flames earn the sixth seed in the West then used four shutouts and 12 wins to upset the third, first and second seeds.

"I came here to be No. 1, but I try not to think so much," he said. "Not thinking is better."

Off the ice, there is more to Kiprusoff. Five years ago, in his first season in North America, he and Swedish teammate Johan Hedberg had a scam going at San Jose's AHL Kentucky franchise, convincing everyone Kiprusoff could not speak English. Whenever his coach yelled an order, Kiprusoff just stared back blankly then chortled about it later.

Since his trade from San Jose in November, Kiprusoff, 27, soon fell in with the single sect of Flames, guys such as Rhett Warrener and Mike Commodore, who enjoy all the fun a close-knit hockey-mad town can offer. Canadians and Finns, Commodore said, are alike in that they don't talk a lot. And Finnish fun and Canadian fun are apparently quite compatible.

"He's so deadpan," Commodore said. "He's just like the rest of us, a lot of fun to be around off the ice."

It's not lost on the Flames how much this Sharks castoff has been a part of their first Stanley Cup final since winning it in 1989. Though Calgary's grinding defense has not often forced him to be spectacular, he has been solid with a 1.86 goals-against average in the postseason.

And when he was not solid - he allowed four goals on 10 shots in the second period of Game 4 of the West final against San Jose and was pulled - he recovered. Kiprusoff played one of his best games of the postseason in Game 5, recording 19 saves in a 3-0 win, and surrendered one goal in an even better Game 6 performance as he eliminated his former team and the goaltender he had been stuck behind, Evgeni Nabokov.

His 23-save effort was plenty good enough in a 4-1 win over the Lightning on Tuesday.

"He has off nights, but it doesn't happen often," defenseman Jordan Leopold said. "He had one bad night, and the next we're wondering what we're going to get. But he bounces back. He's our wall back there. We believe in him."

Flames coach and general manager Darryl Sutter, who coached 51/2 years with the Sharks before being fired in 2002, reacquired Kiprusoff for a conditional second- or third-round draft choice on Nov. 16 when starter Roman Turek was injured.

Kiprusoff was 5-14 with a 3.25 goals-against average in 22 games as an understudy in San Jose. All Kiprusoff was thinking about when he arrived was his first chance to start, and he exploited the chance.

He went 11-3-2 in his first 16 games in Calgary before a knee injury shelved him for 19 games. His subsequent 13-7-2 burst pushed the Flames into the playoffs as he set a modern era record for goals-against average (1.69) and tied for the league save percentage (.933) title.

"I wasn't thinking about the Stanley Cup finals," he said. "For me, it was more like getting the chance to play and being ready to play. It was a long time before I got this chance, and I had to be ready to play well."

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