Kiprusoff shines in net

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:21 AM ET

Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has found his game.

And it couldn't come at a better time for the Flames, who have embarked on a five-game road trip.

With a road-heavy schedule on the plate -- 17 of their remaining 26 games are away from the Saddledome, beginning with tonight's clash in San Jose against the Sharks -- the much-maligned Kiprusoff will be counted on heavily in the push for a playoff spot.

Good thing Kiprusoff has stopped his slide.

"Maybe now I've been able to put good games in a row," Kiprusoff said after yesterday's practice. "Earlier, it was good games, bad games. But I've got to keep working through the whole year.

"I've been feeling pretty good, but still you always try to be better, and right now it's about giving the team a chance to win."

He's certainly done that the past few weeks.

In eight starts since being yanked early in the third period of the Jan. 15 loss in Nashville, Kiprusoff has posted a 6-2-0 record with a 1.97 goals against average and .925 save percentage.

That type of play will put the Flames in good stead for a playoff berth. Thanks to that run, he's managed to put his save percentage to the magical .900 level for the season, to go with a 2.72 average and 28-17-8 record.

Then again, Kiprusoff's teammates will say all the talk about his sub-par play earlier this season was overblown.

"I said back then, 'I don't think he's struggling, it's our team defence,' " said defenceman Adrian Aucoin. "With some of the new players and guys learning the system and guys not playing well, he was taking a lot of heat for other guys. Credit to him, he took it all.

"In my mind, he does everything right, every night. He's saved my bacon enough times for me to feel that way. He plays great, and those games when we let him down or give up too many quality chances, those are goals that would go in on anyone, it doesn't matter who it is."

Hard to argue that logic, but there have been tell-tale signs Kiprusoff has improved his game. He's back to being more aggressive in the net, making saves at the top of his crease and siphoning pucks into his body instead of kicking out rebounds. Those pokechecks in shootouts are noteworthy, too.

"I'm not (a big goalie), so I have to play more aggressive. If you see me inside the net, I'm probably not on top of my game," Kiprusoff said. "For me, when I know I worked hard in the practice, the game success (comes) from there."

In the immediate future, the Flames will need Kiprusoff to be the backbone of the team's success.

Their trip winds from San Jose to Los Angeles and Anaheim then to Phoenix and Dallas before returning to the Stampede City. Sitting seventh in the Western Conference, any slip-ups can have a big price tag.

"Every evening is a big swing," said head coach Mike Keenan. "(Sunday) there were 10 Western Conference teams playing, and I think nine picked up points. It's going to be like that the rest of the year."

So it's not heavy-handed to say every game must be treated like a playoff spot is at stake.

"In reality, it is," said defenceman Anders Eriksson. "It's really tight from the ninth spot to the second spot. But, we just have to concentrate and play with the same energy like we did against Edmonton and we're going to come out more winners than losers."

This trip is similar to the one in December, when a perfect six-game road swing pulled the team out of the doldrums -- 14th in the conference -- back to fighting for top spot in the Northwest Division.

Aucoin said that trip will be used as motivation during this sojourn.

"It's like anything else, you draw the positives either way. If you don't do as well as you hoped, you say, 'We worked hard,' but if you win, you put all the weight on it," he said. "I think we can rehash our last long road trip because it was so good. A lot of times, you don't look to the past, but you have to draw from that. You have to look at it and say, 'How did we win all those games,' and in my mind it's because we outworked those teams. We played a physical game and had a lot of confidence."

For his part, Keenan will be reminding his charges why they were so strong in their last outing, a 4-1 thrashing of Edmonton Saturday night. The Flames dominated the Oilers in the opening period -- a rarity for the club this season.

"What we tried to do before last game was set some goals, and we'll reinforce those as we move forward," Keenan said. "Maybe that will help them get focused better and quicker."

And maybe, along the way Kiprusoff will finally collect his first shutout of the season.

Shockingly, he's yet to blank the opposition in a game, although he came really close against the Oilers until a late goal ruined it.

"Look how that goal happened, a miscue and then a breakaway, and that's what I mean when I say so many goals have been scored on because of us," Aucoin said.


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