SUN Hockey Pool

Recipe for disaster

Getting the best out of Miikka Kiprusoff might mean giving him more of a break heading into the...

Getting the best out of Miikka Kiprusoff might mean giving him more of a break heading into the playoffs. (Sun Media/Andre Forget)

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

At some point during these final few weeks of the regular season, the Calgary Flames will have to ask themselves what's more important -- a fresh Miikka Kiprusoff or a division title?

One may come at the expense of the other.

Every one of the Flames' final 13 games comes against a team in the playoff hunt.

Playing poorly all season in front of backup Curtis McElhinney --who has yet to record his first NHL victory -- the Flames haven't inspired much confidence when Kiprusoff is on the bench.

Being blown away by the Toronto Maple Leafs on the weekend, however, forced head coach Mike Keenan to re-examine his thinking about starting Kiprusoff on the heels of a hectic shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings two nights earlier.

Keenan might want to consider sitting his No.-1 guy a few more times down the stretch, even with the Vancouver Canucks nipping at the heels of the Northwest Division leaders.

Blaming Kiprusoff for any of the three-straight first-round playoff exits since advancing to the Cup final in 2004 would be ridiculous.

But it's interesting to note in his first season as a Flame, Kiprusoff suited up for just 38 regular-season contests after coming over from obscurity on the San Jose Sharks bench.

He certainly showed his fresh form during those four playoff series.

The Flames are going to need that same sort of consistency if they're going to make it back to the championship round.

As impressive as the depth is when this club is completely healthy, it all falls apart if Kiprusoff has an off day.

And it's tough to be at your best when you're tired.

"We're watching his balance," Keenan said after an up-tempo practice yesterday at Westside Recreation Centre. "He's had a lot of days off this season. We'll continue to watch his play very closely."

On pace for more than 70 games again this year, Kiprusoff says he is feeling no ill-effects from a fourth straight season of one of the heaviest workloads in the league.

The fact he came into camp in the best shape of his career might be a contributing factor.

"Probably. It's hard to say," said Kiprusoff. "But like I've been saying, I feel alright. Not too tired. Hopefully, it helps."

Feeling tired is one thing, looking it is another.

He looked it Saturday.

The Flames can't continue piling the workload on their best backstop and expect him to avoid more performances like that.

With the Canucks now just five points behind the Flames and the third seed in the Western Conference, Kiprusoff would love to play every one of the games remaining on the schedule.

"It's still 10-plus games left, and they're big games," he said. "We want to finish in the top of our division, so it's going to be tough -- but that's our goal."

Ultimately, though, the goal is a lengthy playoff run.

Consistent goaltending is the only way to make that happen.

Getting the best out of Kiprusoff might mean giving him more of a break heading into the playoffs.

Of course, with the record of 50 wins within reach -- he's earned every one of the 40 the Flames have so far this season -- you won't hear anything of the sort from Kiprusoff. He believes he can continue to be the guy who is leaned on night in and night out, and still be ready for what many in Calgary are hoping is a long haul in the post-season.

"Definitely," he said without hesitation when asked if he'd be fresh in April if he were to start nearly every game the rest of the way.

"I believe I'm so used to playing all those games, it's not going to make any difference for me."

With an average of 4.75 goals against per game over his last four starts, you have to wonder.

He's not getting a lot of help from his teammates defensively at the moment, but a fresh Kiprusoff might have an easier time dealing with the lapses in front of him.

Admirably turning away 40 of the 45 shots he faced in Motown, Kiprusoff deserved the night off Saturday instead of the nightmare the trip to Hogtown turned out to be.

Not just because of the physical demands placed on him in Detroit, either.

"It was a very emotional game, as well," said Keenan. "A little bit draining that way."

Nothing is more draining than the playoffs.

So having Kiprusoff at his rested best should be the priority.


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