Miikka Kiprusoff inched out of his crease, watching the puck,
waiting as Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards skated in
alone on a shorthanded breakaway. There was no score in the
second period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday,
and Richards had plenty of options against the Calgary Flames'
6'2", 190-pound goalie. Deke. Shoot high gloveside. Go low
blocker. Test the five hole. Kiprusoff was reading a shot to the
glove-hand post but then saw Richards slightly alter the angle
of his stick to try to beat him stickside instead. Richards
wristed a shot, the puck rising toward a yawning top corner. "I
saw him get a piece of it," Richards would say later in the
Lightning dressing room, the only quiet place in Calgary after
the game. "When I saw that, I had the feeling, Oh, this isn't
good. Nothing good was going to come of that." Not for Tampa
Bay, anyway. Sixteen seconds after Kiprusoff's dramatic save
with his blocker, the Flames' Chris Simon scored on the power
play. Calgary was on its way to a 3-0 win.
Said the goalie of his game-turning stop, "I was a little lucky."
That's Miikka Kiprusoff--two i's, two k's, two f's, no sexy
One day after Canadian prime minister Paul Martin traipsed into
the dressing room to meet players and receive a personalized
Flames jersey, Kiprusoff provided a 60-minute photo op in Game 3
that was considerably more dazzling. See the Kipper whip from
post to post. Watch him thrust out his right pad on Lightning
sniper Ruslan Fedotenko's shot and make a leg save worthy of
Dominik Hasek in his prime. See him peer through traffic and turn
aside blasts from the point. Although the Lightning rallied to
deadlock the series at two games apiece with a 1-0 win on Monday,
Kiprusoff allowed Tampa to score only when it had a two-man
advantage. Going into Game 5, he has a league-high five playoff
shutouts and a tiny 1.83 goals-against average and has been the
foundation for the Flames' improbable Stanley Cup pursuit. He has
the Lightning in a bottle.
If this was below-the-fold stuff in your sports section, the
return of the Stanley Cup final to a hockey-besotted nation after
a 10-year absence was bold-type, A1 material all over Canada. The
ESPN telecast of the series opener drew little more than a
million U.S. viewers, but in Canada it attracted some 3 million
on CBC and another 500,000 on RDS, a French-language sports
network based in Quebec. Let's check the math: There was more
than triple the number of viewers for Flames-Lightning in a
nation with about one tenth the population of the U.S.
Of course the epicenter of this True North nuttiness was Calgary,
an oil city of nearly 1 million that feels more like down-home
Denver than Toronto. To Calgarians, the home games were like a
cross between Christmas morning and their 21st birthdays.
Downtown was abuzz with celebratory fans honking their car horns
and chanting, "Go Flames Go!" And that was in the afternoon
before Game 3. This was a city as mosh pit, joined vicariously by
the rest of a nation that shares its infatuation for a rank
underdog--the team and the sport. (Except Quebec, of course,
where sentiment was split because of the homegrown darlings who
play for Tampa Bay, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.)
While Calgary was awash in its "C of Red," there was something
more sepia-toned about Kiprusoff. He arrived in Calgary last
November from another team and another time. He makes stylish,
old-time saves, the kind that predominated before heavily armored
goalies began dropping to their knees, puffing themselves up like
bullfrogs and waiting for the puck to strike them. Kiprusoff made
21 saves last Saturday, and the quality was every bit as
important as the quantity.
"Maybe we're trying to move the puck and get him out of position
too much," Lightning center Tim Taylor said after Game 3. "It's
almost like it was when we used to play against Hasek. The
coaches would go over and over the goaltender, and you'd end up
thinking too much."
"Sometimes," Tampa Bay captain Dave Andreychuk said, "a goalie
can get into your head."
In that case Kiprusoff was living in a three-bedroom between the
Lightning's collective cerebrum and cerebral cortex. The
preseries favorite, Tampa Bay did not handle either Kiprusoff or
its first experience in the final with much aplomb, alternating
wildly between efforts that were middling and inspired. That
could be an outgrowth of the mood set by tightly wound coach John
Tortorella, who seemed to be enjoying the finals about as much as
a tax audit. He is a passionate advocate for hockey, but his
single-mindedness can seem peevish. After Lightning defenseman
Dan Boyle's house was severely damaged by fire during Game 1, a
4-1 Calgary win, Tortorella downplayed the event, saying that
because no one was injured, it was "just a bunch of wood
burning." Sure. And the trophy NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will
award at the end of the series is just a hunk of silver.
Many Tampa Bay players have also shown questionable judgment,
notably Lecavalier. He was sublime in Game 2, combining the
physical edge that has tinted his best playoff performances with
an unmatched offensive flair. He created the first goal by
backhanding the puck off the back of the net--a
direct-from-the-pond move that flummoxed Calgary checker Stephane
Yelle--then spinning 180 degrees and skating out with the puck.
The only things missing were Sweet Georgia Brown and the
confetti-in-the-bucket gag. But then, drunk on his own skill and
toughness, Lecavalier tried the move again in Game 3 (it failed)
and also picked a fight with Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
Although Tortorella applauded from the bench, the tussle was as
misguided as it was startling; Iginla is a semiregular pugilist
despite his day job as Calgary's top offensive threat, while
Lecavalier had had just 10 fights in his six-year NHL career.
Iginla won that battle and the war, setting up Simon's goal and
scoring a late one of his own.
Iginla is the omnipresent face of the Flames and indeed of all
Canadian hockey. Principal CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge flew
from Toronto to Tampa to conduct a 30-minute interview with him
last week. (Imagine Dan Rather wanting a good half hour with St.
Louis.) But Kiprusoff has been a perfect complement on this
transcendent joy ride. Unlike the effervescent Iginla, Kiprusoff
seldom reveals anything other than a luxuriant orange thatch of
playoff beard when he slips his mask on top of his head during
stoppages in play. Even after being tripped up by the Lightning's
Andre Roy midway through the third period of Calgary's 4-1 loss
in Game 2, he looked unperturbed. "He didn't get all revved up
and start slashing [Tampa Bay players]," Flames defenseman Andrew
Ference said. "His demeanor is a huge help, especially after a
tough night or a loss."
For Kiprusoff, Game 2 against the Lightning marked the fifth time
he had allowed four or more goals in a playoff defeat. In the
five subsequent games--all wins--Kiprusoff allowed a total of
five goals. He was a remarkable 7-1 after playoff losses, with a
1.17 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage in those
games, numbers that speak to will as much as to skill. He has
mastered the art of controlling a rebound, especially his own.
"He's always been able to bounce back," Montreal Canadiens
captain Saku Koivu, who grew up in the same Turku neighborhood,
said by telephone from Finland last Thursday. "He'd have a bad
game and it was like, Screw this."
The Flames acquired Kiprusoff, then a career backup with a record
of 14-21-3, from the San Jose Sharks in November for a
conditional 2005 draft pick. At that time the only thing lower
than the expectations around Kiprusoff were his pads. Although
most goalies would wear hip waders if they could get away with
it--the NHL limited the allowable pad length to 38 inches this
season--Kiprusoff was flitting around in 35-inchers. David
Marcoux, Calgary's goalie coach, convinced Kiprusoff that by
shorting himself he was ceding space between his legs and got him
to switch to 36 1/2-inch-long pads that extend farther up his
thighs. Not that Kiprusoff spent much time on his knees. Marcoux
encouraged him to mix in a little more butterfly and moved him
deeper into the crease on plays coming off the wings, allowing
the goalie to use his astonishing lateral speed more effectively.
The coach did not, however, tinker with Kiprusoff's glove hand.
Says Marcoux, "You don't mess with a gold mine."
After a succession of otherwise estimable European goalies who
haven't caught the puck as much as subdued it, and who have
handled it as if it were toxic, Kiprusoff has distinguished
himself with his glovework and polished outlet passing. The
goalie who finished the season with a 1.69 goals-against average,
the lowest in more than 60 years, defies stereotypes and scouting
reports. "He doesn't do the same thing all the time, which is a
sign of a thinking goalie," Tampa Bay associate coach Craig
Ramsay says. "That makes him difficult to read."
To the Lightning, he might as well be Ulysses.
For more Stanley Cup finals coverage, including a series
breakdown, go to si.com/hockey/nhl/specials/playoffs/2004.
Downtown Calgary was abuzz with fans honking their horns and
chanting "Go Flames Go." And that was before the game.