SUN Hockey Pool

Net what Flames are used to

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

Miikka Kiprusoff's rise to stardom in Calgary was rapid.

The fall has been gradual, but as many who viewed the Flames goaltender as a hero in his first two seasons now suggest he may be a liability.

Allowing a league-worst 15 goals against over the first three games of the 2008-09 season, Kiprusoff and the Flames aren't giving the fans a lot of confidence despite winning their first game of the year 5-4 over the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night.

Unless the team finds the answers they're looking for on how to patch the holes that have been exposed nightly in their defensive play, get used to more of the same from Kiprusoff.

In reality, he's never actually been what he has been viewed as in this city.

He's a top goaltender, but probably shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest who ever played the game.

For nearly two years, the 31-year-old Finn was spectacular -- during the run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 and the march to a Northwest Division title in 2005-06 -- earning the Vezina and Jennings trophies in '06. Since then his numbers have sagged.

Kiprusoff's save percentage has dropped steadily since the .933 he posted in 2003-04.

From .923 in 2005-06, to .917 the following season, to .906 a year ago, to .826 over the first few of this campaign. The goals-against-average has mirrored that, with a modern-day record 1.69 in '04 followed by a 2.07 in his Vezina season, then a 2.46 and 2.69 the past two years.

It should balance a little over the coming weeks and months, but his current GAA is a staggering 4.89.

Thing is, he shouldn't be the one taking all the blame. Kiprusoff is, and has always been, a product of his environment, which has changed greatly since the lockout.

The way the Flames have played defence this season has forced him to either come up with a miraculous save, or pray the shooter misfires, in order to keep the puck out of the net.

"We haven't helped him out a lot," said Craig Conroy, who isn't worried about the much-speculated decline of Kiprusoff. "If we can do some more work for him, it'll make his job easier."

Kiprusoff's best work of the young season came in the third period of Tuesday's win. He came up with some timely stops, especially on the penalty kill, to preserve the win.

"I don't know if it sounds funny, but I felt pretty good," Kiprusoff said the day after allowing at least four goals in three straight starts for just the second time in his career.

"There's some little things I'm working on again today, but overall I felt pretty good."

The little things he mentioned are timing and patience issues, and keeping his body compact to absorb the puck.

Rebounds have been springing off him thus far, and he hasn't had any help from the men in front of him keeping those loose pucks away from the opposition.

"I think I'll be fine," said Kiprusoff, who will earn $8.5 million this season.

"I think we're going to play better and better as a team as the games go on."

They have to, or you can forget about a division title. The playoffs will be hard to reach, too, if they can't keep the goals-against down.

"To come out and get six against in the first game, that was definitely not what we wanted," said defenceman Jim Vandermeer of the slow start and a 6-0 shutout at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks in last week's opener. "Slowly but surely they're coming down. Hopefully, we can get them down even more and keep them down.

"There's a handful of goals that we watched (on tape) and guys are right there. They're so close to being in the right spot. They're not on their sticks and they don't quite finish the guy, but it's close ... It's a work in progress, obviously."

The win might give them a little more confidence and allow the team to settle into their system rather than overcompensate and find themselves in the wrong position.

"Sometimes early in a season, it's like you try too hard," said Kiprusoff.

"Goalies do the same mistakes. Everybody has to calm down and read the game.

"It's going to be better to play with patience and trust your system."

You'd like to trust your goaltender, as well, but that's getting harder and harder for people in this city to do.


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