SUN Hockey Pool

Take 2! Curt-ain raising do-over

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

Officially, Curtis McElhinney is still an NHL rookie.

Funny, but the Calgary Flames goaltender really doesn't feel like one.

When the 2007-08 season kicked off, McElhinney was the last man standing in the battle to be the backup goalie.

He ended up spending more time on the bench than on the ice -- with a knee injury that required a stint in the minors -- before being dispatched to the AHL for good in January when Curtis Joseph was signed.

McElhinney finds himself the backup again, but this time around, he thinks he belongs and is eager to prove it.

"I think I'm more confident more than anything," said the hometown product.

"I'm more familiar with the situation. You make the team out of camp and you're a little more starry-eyed at first, just sitting there with guys like Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Dion (Phaneuf) and stuff.

"You want to play and want to make a good impression, and maybe I didn't come in as prepared as I should have been because I was a little star-struck.

"This year, that's not the case. I feel comfortable playing at this level and have no doubts about it."

McElhinney's 2007-08 season was a tumultuous ride.

He won the roster spot out of training camp, but suffered a slight knee injury in the warm-up before the second game of the season. He returned from the sidelines and had some mop-up duty in a one-sided loss to the San Jose Sharks before being sent to the minors for a month.

He came back to Calgary, lost his first NHL start, stuck around for a couple of months and saw a bit of action along the way before being sent to the Quad City Flames for good.

His last outing with the Flames came in a period-long relief appearance, all while knowing Joseph was coming to town and he'd be sent back to the bushes.

"It was disappointing," said McElhinney.

"A lot of it relates to that injury I had at the start of the year. You miss some time with that, then go to the minors for a month to get some games in and then come back to a team in the thick of a playoff run and it's tough to throw in a guy when you don't know his history.

"I did get a bit of experience last year and in the pre-season this year, so I believe the coaching staff has confidence to put me in there."

Curiously, he believes his last NHL action -- he stopped a dozen shots in 18 minutes of play -- made it easier to go to the Baby Flames.

"I saw some shots, played well, and I was thrilled about it. It was a great opportunity for me to say, 'Hey, I'm capable of playing at this level,' " he said.

"It actually was a nice way for me to leave the team."

In five appearances, totalling 150 minutes, he posted a 2.00 goals-against- average and .902 save percentage.

Flames head coach Mike Keenan said how McElhinney handled the entire situation was a positive sign.

"He was mature in his response to the demotion and handled it well. He went down and worked, improved his game, and responded properly," Keenan said. "I think that was a good indication of how he can accept his development as a goaltender.

"Now, he's more confident, more mature, more experienced. Sometimes, it's just a little bit that makes the difference."

In the pre-season, McElhinney showed that improvement.

In the equivalent of three full games, the 25-year-old netminder posted a 1.33 goals-against-average and .944 save percentage.

"I think the pre-season was a big test and something I was looking forward to," he said. "I know the first game wasn't how I wanted it to go, but after that things went pretty well.

"We won some games, and that was huge, and I think that builds confidence with my teammates. They see, 'Hey, we can throw this guy in and he can help us win a game.' "

How many games he'll get that chance remains to be seen.

Starting goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is a workhorse, playing in at least 74 contests each of the last three seasons.

Nobody wants to guess how many games he will play.

"I wish I could put a number on it. We have to see how it goes. A lot depends on how we're doing in the standings and how Kip feels," said McElhinney.

"There's no point trying to figure out how much I'll play. I did it last year a bit, was waiting, waiting, waiting and waiting. It's tough sitting there, but as the season progressed I got used to it and got in some games and felt pretty good in them."


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