CALGARY – Nigerian-born Akim Aliu provided the Calgary Flames with a silver lining to an otherwise disappointing season.
In his second NHL game, the 22-year-old scored his first two goals as Calgary concluded the regular season with a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.
“It was surreal,” said Aliu. “It’s something you think about your whole life but you can never plan for it, you never know what the feelings are going to be like and when it happens, you don’t believe it for the first while to enjoy it.”
Aliu opened the scoring four minutes into the first period on a fluky bounce. His cross-ice pass intended for Mike Cammalleri caromed sharply off the skate of Anaheim’s Luca Sbisa and past Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller.
“I toe-dragged Lubomir Visnovsky and put it in off the bar,” said Aliu, with a smile, when asked what his version of his first NHL goal will be later in life when he’s asked about it.
Aliu made his NHL debut Thursday night against Vancouver and had an assist in the Flames 3-2 victory. It was the culmination of a long journey which saw Aliu play for eight professional teams over the past four seasons.
“Hopefully management liked what they saw and hopefully they give me a long look next year. That’s all I can I really ask for,” said Aliu. “They’ve been so great to me that I can’t really think too much ahead.”
Aliu, a big man at six-foot-four and 225 pounds, moved from Nigeria to the Ukraine shortly after he was born. His Nigerian father and Russian mother moved the family to Canada when he was 12 years old. He had never skated.
Aliu started off this season at the Winnipeg Jets training camp but that did not work out and he returned home to Toronto. His first game this year eventually came with the Colorado Eagles of the East Coast Hockey League. He was acquired by the Flames organization on Jan. 30 from the Jets in exchange for Flames defensive prospect John Negrin. He had 10 goals and four assists in 40 games with Abbotsford (AHL) before Calgary recalled him on Wednesday to give the pending restricted free agent a two-game look.
“It was fun to be a part of it for me, I got to play on his line for two games,” said Cammalleri. “I’m really happy for him, he played really hard, he played well, all the things we all saw—skated well, hit hard, made good plays with the puck.”
Jay Bouwmeester, Anton Babchuk and Lee Stempniak also scored for Calgary (37-29-16). Henrik Karlsson made 23 saves for his first victory since Jan. 21, 2011. He had been 0-6-3 in his previous nine decisions.
Since going to the Stanley Cup final in 2004, the seven seasons since the NHL lockout haven’t been as rewarding Calgary. Four first-round playoff losses have been followed by three seasons of not making the post-season.
Bobby Ryan’s 30th and 31st goals of the season supplied all the offence for Anaheim (34-36-12). The Ducks finish the campaign with their worst record since 2003-04.
After goals 25 seconds apart from Bouwmeester and Babchuk in the final minute of the second put the Flames ahead by two goals, Aliu made it 4-1 on his second at 7:24 of the third when Bouwmeester’s shot deflected in off Aliu’s ankle.
The announcement of the goal sparked shouts of “Aloooooo” from the invigorated sell-out Scotiabank Saddledome crowd of 19,289.
Both teams could ice drastically different rosters next season. Unrestricted free agents on the Flames include forwards Olli Jokinen, Stempniak, David Moss and Tom Kostopoulos, along with veteran defencemen Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan.
Head coach Brent Sutter’s three-year contract also expires this summer. There is speculation about whether or not he’ll be back having failed to get Calgary to the post-season during his stint, although this year was an especially challenging one injury-wise with the Flames missing 389 man games to injury.
Jarome Iginla will be another hot conversation topic. The Flames captain and all-time leading scorer has a no-trade clause in his contract but there’s talk the team may ask him to wave it.
“I honestly don’t know what it holds,” said Iginla, when asked about his future. “I do know that there will be a lot of questions and we’re all going to be looked at it and that’s part of it and we all should be being out for three years.”
Calgary is the 11th oldest team in the NHL and many expect them to get younger.
“Do I want to go on, on a team if we’re going to fully rebuild? I don’t know that I do,” said Iginla. “I think Calgary has a very good organization. I think they treat us all well as players and I do think that there’s a lot of good things going. When I see some of the young guys this year, it’s been a big positive.”
The eight Ducks potentially playing their last game for Anaheim included UFAs Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Jason Blake and Niklas Hagman.
Selanne, 41, is the most intriguing situation, as he led the Ducks in scoring this season with 26 goals and 40 assists.
“It was tough to finish the season like we did, not making the playoffs is very disappointing.,” said Selanne. “But I still had a great time. Every day I have a big smile on my face to come to the rink so that’s something that’s most important for me.”
Selanne’s ranks 12th on the all-time list for goals scored with 663, one behind Jaromir Jagr of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I don’t know if you always have to play as long as you can. You know that it’s going to end some year and my dream, always, is that I could retire on my own terms and healthy and still enjoy the game and life after hockey,” said Selanne. “Obviously, I have to talk with my family too about the situation. The boys get older and it’s hard to be away from home for such a long time all the time. Obviously, I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to play for so many years.”
Notes: Anaheim goes 27-23-8 under the guidance of coach Bruce Boudreau, who was hired Nov. 30…Putting Calgary’s 16 overtime losses in perspective, only two teams have had more, ever—this season’s Florida Panthers (18) and the 08-09 Tampa Bay Lightning (18)…Flames prospect Sven Baertschi has 15 points (3 goals, 12 assists) in his first five Western Hockey League playoff games. He had three goals in five games with the Flames as an emergency recall in March.