So much of what Miikka Kiprusoff has done well for the Calgary Flames the past seven years has been to make the impossible seem doable. Above all, this is the quality that NHL teams prize when it comes to goaltending – to get consistent play, night after night. If your goaltender outplays your opponent's more often than not, you have a chance to win every game – and for all his years in Calgary, Kiprusoff has, more often than not, outplayed his opposite number at the other end of the rink.
It is why, on a Monday morning, the stats line on Kiprusoff is so uncharacteristically grim – just a 3.43 goals-against average, an .857 save percentage and only three wins in 10 decisions. Kiprusoff's save percentage leaves him ranked 72nd of the 79 goalies which have played a game in the league this year and is far off his historical standards. Kiprusoff had a slow start to the season and then, this past weekend, two grim outings in the Flames' whirlwind trip through southern California.
Kiprusoff was the starter on Friday against Anaheim and was outplayed by the Ducks' first-year goaltender, Viktor Fasth, in a 4-0 Calgary loss. It didn't get any better 24 hours later either, as the Flames fell 6-2 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Kiprusoff gave up six goals on 22 shots and then got the hook from coach Bob Hartley in favour of Joey MacDonald, when it no longer mattered.
To a man, the Flames raced to the defence of their beleaguered goaltender in the aftermath of the twin losses. This is in keeping with the sports' widely held ethic – that under no circumstances, do you ever put the defeat on your goaltender's shoulders.
Kiprusoff has been so good for so long and on as recently as this past Wednesday, looked terrific in his return to the lineup after recovering from a knee injury that took a month to heal. Once Kiprusoff's timing and conditioning improve, he may even start to resemble the Miikka of old.
The problem in Calgary is that the Flames don't have a lot of time left for Kiprusoff to get his game back on track, not as their season reaches the mid-point with Monday's return date with the Kings. The Flames are veteran scoreboard watchers, having missed the playoffs for the past three seasons, and thus, they understand the mathematics and the mechanics of the race better than most.
Team captain Jarome Iginla noted that the 9-10-4 Flames needed to be "at least .500" when this trip ends.
"We would have liked to win these games and get back in it, but now we have to make sure we don't slip right out of it," Iginla said. "So it's very important. We know that trying to catch too many teams [is difficult], so we need to get this one, get to .500, get home and then win some games."
That sums up the challenge nicely. Once they get home, the Flames will have 10 games remaining until the NHL's April 3 trading deadline – and by then, they should have a clearer idea of whether their playoff hopes are real or illusory. Only the Edmonton Oilers have fewer points in the Western Conference standing than Calgary at the moment.
The difference is that even as the Oilers demonstrate that their future is still off somewhere in the hazy distance, the Flames have little to cheer about in the present as far as prospects in the pipeline go. Their most promising youngster, forward Sven Baertschi, was re-assigned to their minor-league affiliate in Abbotsford Saturday, clearly not yet ready for prime NHL time. Another member of the Kiddie Corps, centre Mikael Backlund, returned Saturday after missing 14 games with a knee injury, but he turns 24 next week and the Flames want to see some Backlund's promise realized, preferably sooner rather than later.
The schedule makers have cooked up an interesting scenario for the first week of April for the Flames and the Oilers. They play a home-and-home series in the 72 hours leading up to the NHL trading deadline.
Because the standings are so tight right now, NHL general managers believe sellers will be hard to find this year and thus, buyers will need to pay a significant premium for reinforcements. Calgary has been loath to sell in the past, because it conflicts with their organizational philosophy that they are in it every year.
It might be time to revisit that policy, even if it's just for one year, to see what the market might be for some of their more tradeable assets, primary and secondary players alike. The Flames took Sunday off to regroup in the warm California sun, knowing full well that they need to string together a bunch of wins – and soon. If not, the for-sale sign needs to be posted on general manager Jay Feaster's lawn. The spring cleaning can't start soon enough for some.