CALGARY – The Calgary Flames’ season has resembled an aging car.
Repair the leaky oil pan and then the fuel pump fails. Fix that and then a tire goes flat. The Flames just can’t get traction this NHL season.
But whether it was Jarome Iginla’s early-season scoring drought, the hot-and-cold play of Rene Bourque or the en masse disappearing act of players some nights, the man who could be counted on every game is now in a funk.
Miikka Kiprusoff, the goalie who gives Calgary chances to win games they don’t deserve to, is now struggling. The Flames’ slim playoff chances become even more improbable if Kiprusoff is off his game.
Kiprusoff has given up 15 goals in his last four starts. He was pulled for backup Henrik Karlsson in two of them after allowing four goals in each. Six pucks got by Kiprusoff in a 6-0 loss at home to Minnesota on Wednesday.
While Calgary’s offence and defence played poorly against the Wild, Kiprusoff is counted on to help steal wins by making the saves that inspire the team in front of him.
“I’ve had some tough games before,” the soft-spoken Finn said Thursday. “It’s a new thing now. I have to work my way out of it.”
Kiprusoff, 34, has a mediocre save percentage of .897 and a so-so goals-against average of 2.84. Both are well off his career highs of .933 and 1.69 of 2003-04.
Eight points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference on Thursday, Calgary (20-21-6) is running out of time for a post-season push. They host the Dallas Stars on Friday and are on the road Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks.
Kiprusoff can’t take the blame for Calgary’s current precarious situation, but the timing couldn’t be worse for his unsteady play.
Calgary gleaned six of a possible eight points on a recent four-game road trip which ended Monday. In the two games Kiprusoff was replaced, the Flames rallied for shootout losses against the Hurricanes and the Canadiens. Kiprusoff stopped 32 of 33 shots in a 2-1 shootout win over Toronto, while Karlsson picked up the victory in Ottawa.
Renewed hope the Flames still had a playoff pulse turned to anger in the debacle against Minnesota. The club was booed at the Scotiabank Saddledome and some of those jeers were directed at Kiprusoff.
“I don’t think he’s ever had a stretch like this, so when expectations are (so) high for an individual such as Kipper and you have a couple of off-games, I think it’s more shock than anything,” said forward Brendan Morrison. “But it’s almost like people have given up on him after four games, which I think is comical in a way.
“We all know he’s one of the best goaltenders and we have all the faith in the world that he’s going to bounce back. It’s magnified because of our situation. If we were holding down a playoff spot and had some room to breathe and this was happening, I don’t think much would be made about it.”
Darryl Sutter acquired Kiprusoff from San Jose in 2003 for a second-round draft pick.
Kiprusoff was a key player in Calgary reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2004 and he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2005-’06. He has been considered one of the league’s premiere goaltenders during his tenure as a Flame.
When Sutter resigned Dec. 28, the Flames had set the goal of winning two out of every three games for the remainder of the season in order to make the post-season.
Head coach Brent Sutter, Darryl’s brother, and Kiprusoff’s teammates suggest their star goalie is taking on too much responsibility to make that happen, which is affecting his game.
“That might be one reason,” Kiprusoff admitted. “I shouldn’t worry about that. It’s one game at a time and I shouldn’t worry about what happened before.
“It’s been pretty tough. For sure I think I have to relax and do my basic stuff.”
Both Kiprusoff and Karlsson spent portions of Thursday’s practice in individual drills with goaltending coach Jamie McLennan.
“Jamie is watching the tapes and helping me out,” Kiprusoff said. “If he sees something, we work on those things.”
Knowing confidence can be fragile for even a player as seasoned as Kiprusoff, Brent Sutter said he spoke with Kiprusoff before practise Thursday.
“He needs to know he has everyone in his corner,” Sutter said. “He’s gone through a tough spell here. He’s a very prideful guy and takes it to heart.
“Even though he may have a quiet demeanour, it’s eaten at him on the inside and he just needs to let all that go and take the weight of the world off his shoulders and just start having fun with the game again and start enjoying it.”
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 28, so decision time is coming for acting general manager Jay Feaster. Sweeping change is virtually impossible because 11 players, including Kiprusoff, have no-movement or no-trade clauses in their contracts.
Feaster says he is loathe to trade Kiprusoff based on his experience as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Five years after the Lightning lost Stanley Cup-winning netminder Nikolai Khabibulin to free agency, Feaster said that organization still hasn’t found a replacement of equivalent calibre.
Even if Kiprusoff agreed to waive his no-trade clause, Kiprusoff has three years remaining on a contract that’s a salary cap hit of $5.8 million annually. There won’t be much of a market for an older, expensive goaltender, particularly one who is struggling.
Karlsson has shown promise, but this is the Swede’s first season in the NHL. Handing the starting job to him would truly signal Calgary is entering a rebuilding phase.
That still may happen. Whether the Flames keep Kiprusoff or decide to try to trade him, the Flames need their star goaltender back in form, lest their season stall completely.
NOTES:—Swedish forward Mikael Backlund missed Thursday’s practice with what the team said was a charley horse. He is expected to play Friday. … Forward Tom Kostopoulos will complete his six-game suspension Friday for a hit that broke the jaw of Detroit’s Brad Stuart on Jan. 7. He’s eligible to return for Saturday’s game.