It has been five years since the epic Stanley Cup final playoff battle between the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Five years since Martin Gelinas scored the phantom Cup winner on home ice in Game 6. Five years since the Lightning won for real in Game 7.
Five years have passed, but the story is still the same for goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Nikolai Khabibulin. This year’s opening round series between the Flames and Chicago Blackhawks has been so close, so intense, the biggest deciding factor so far has been the performances of said goalies.
Kiprusoff was good in Game 1 and 2, but Khabibulin was better. Chicago won both games by a goal. If Kiprusoff had been as solid as Khabibulin, the Flames would have come home for Game 3 with a split, if not a sweep.
Game 3 was probably Calgary’s weakest game of the series, yet the Flames won
4-2. That’s because Kiprusoff ramped up his performance from good to very good and the Flames finally found a way to solve Khabibulin.
Khabibulin’s mastery of the Flames over the years has been stunning. It would be nice to think since his bubble has burst, he’s just another beatable goalie. But it’s not that simple.
Khabibulin is big, has a crouch that covers a huge chunk of scoring space and still has fabulous reflexes for a 36-year-old. Where he is beatable is fighting through screens and moving side to side.
Kiprusoff, on the other hand, is either very average this season or very good. Much has been written about coach Mike Keenan overplaying him into exhaustion, but the simple fact remains, if Kipper gets hot, the Flames have the offensive horses to play well into May this spring.
The best-case scenario is Kiprusoff catching a case of his 2003-04 goaltending magic and carrying the Flames, even on nights when they’re outplayed. But that should neither be counted on nor expected.
The outcome of the Calgary-Chicago series will undoubtedly come down to goaltending. The team that plays the strongest may not necessarily win; the team that has the better goaltending will. Skaters such as Jarome Iginla and Jonathan Toews don’t have nearly as much power and influence as Kiprusoff and Khabibulin.
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Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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