SUNRISE, FLA. - The situation was pulling Leland Irving in both directions.
On one hand, the Calgary Flames goalkeeper put in a very good performance in his NHL debut, stopping 39 shots through overtime to force a shootout.
On the other hand, Irving and the Flames ended upon the wrong side of the result, losing a 3-2 shootout affair to the Florida Panthers Friday night, putting a blemish on what could have been a perfect start to his NHL career.
“It’s kind of all a blur right now,” Irving replied when asked what was the most memorable part of his outing. “It would have been nice to get the two points — that’ll stick in my mind.”
You can’t pin the score on the 23-year-old goalie chosen in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Even if Irving was victimized by Sean Bergenheim’s second goal of the night with less than five minutes remaining in regulation and was beat by Stephen Weiss for the shootout winner in the fourth round before the BankAtlantic Center announced crowd of 15,575 fans, he did everything the club could have asked of him in his first NHL action.
“I was proud of the way he played,” said Flames head coach Brent Sutter. “I think they saw early when he made those couple of big saves, he would be fine. He was very much under control through the whole night — nothing rattled him. He played very poised.
“We do need our backup to get us some points, and Irv did everything he could to get us a win. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the two, but he has to be given full marks for standing tall and allowing us to get one.”
The Flames (14-14-4) have lost all three games so far during this four-game road swing, including two in extra time on consecutive nights, and that doesn’t bode well for their playoff chances.
However, how Irving would perform when finally given his chance has been a big question ever since he was summoned from the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat to replace injured backup goalie Henrik Karlsson. Irving didn’t hurt his argument for more chances between the pipes by battling through early-game nerves and putting in a solid effort.
“It was everything I thought it would be and more,” Irving said. “It’s great to step on the ice with that calibre of players. There’s a lot of talent out there, and guys have that extra half-second of poise — they shoot the puck harder and more accurate.
“I enjoyed the challenge.
“I felt pretty calm,” Irving continued. “I actually think I was more nervous (Thursday) night. I was able to get into my game-day routine, approach it like another game. (Flames goalie coach) Clint Malarchuk helped me a lot. He pulled me aside a couple of times, shared a couple of stories and had his few words of wisdom.”
Irving was the reason his team had a chance to win, even if the visitors trailed in the early going.
It took until halfway through the first period, when Olli Jokinen tied the game at one apiece, for the Flames to gain any momentum.
And when Rene Bourque scored on the powerplay early in the third period to give the Flames a 2-1 lead, it sure looked like a victory was in the cards, even with the Panthers generating one chance after another against a Flames team playing on fumes in the final minutes.
However, Irving couldn’t hold the fort while facing 14 shots in the third period.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t win for him,” said Flames winger Lee Stempniak, who couldn’t prolong a shootout that was delayed slightly by fans tossing souvenir rats — a Florida hockey tradition — on the ice.
“He gave us a chance to win — did everything he could. It was on us to come through.”
The Southeast Division leading Panthers improved to 17-9-6.
The Flames conclude their road swing Sunday in Chicago.