Can't rely on Kiprusoff forever

Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff makes a save against the Devils at the Scotiabank Saddledome in...

Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff makes a save against the Devils at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alta., Jan. 10, 2012. (DARREN MAKOWICHUK/QMI Agency)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:38 AM ET

SAN JOSE - Leland Irving’s next action with the Calgary Flames is first and foremost about the club’s quest to make the NHL playoffs.

The Flames have to expect to win games, even when they have a backup goalie between the pipes and not standout Miikka Kiprusoff.

However, the next time Irving, the 2006 first-round draft choice, goes between the pipes for the Flames, it will be a major test of his bounce-back abilities.

Irving’s last NHL outing was the infamous 9-0 loss to the Boston Bruins back on Jan. 5, during which the rookie goalkeeper surrendered six goals in 26 minutes before being hooked.

Irving is expected to be in goal Thursday night when the Flames face the Phoenix Coyotes, although head coach Brent Sutter said he hadn’t decided whether the netminder will see action against the Coyotes or Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks (8 p.m., TSN/Sportsnet 960). Regardless, Irving must prove he’s put that disappointment behind him.

“(That 9-0 loss is) one of those things that happens. You hope it never happens again, but chances are, in this game, it’s going to happen again,” said Irving, who could hardly be solely to blame for that loss in Beantown. “You just regroup, keep working hard and try and have a better outcome the next time you have a chance.”

Irving’s case is a perfect example of how the Flames must approach this season with their prospects.

As much as making the playoffs and hoping they can drum up a Cinderella run by getting to the NHL’s second season is the goal, the Flames also must look to the future. That includes using this season, as much as possible, to see what the youngsters in the system — be them currently with the Flames or in the minors — can accomplish at the NHL ranks.

Irving, who has a 1-1-2 record along with a 3.67 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage in four NHL appearances, is one of those players.

The Flames must discover whether Irving, who is slated to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer, is part of the long-term solution to getting this team back to the league’s upper-echelon.

Even though he hasn’t played an NHL game in more than a month, the Flames did the right thing by sending Irving to the minors for a couple of outings last week before summoning him back to the big club and then sending Henrik Karlsson to the AHL Abbotsford Heat for a two-week conditioning stint to give him the best chance to rebound from the knee injury which sidelined him for two months.

“I think it’s a smart move to send me down to get some games,” Irving said after a Tuesday practice. “I definitely felt I was a little rusty the first game with the Heat, and in the second game, I felt able to pick up where I left off. It was nice to go down there and get some confidence, and the idea is to bring that to the table here.”

Amidst all the injuries this season, the Flames have resisted the urge to mortgage the future to add a veteran.

This season, they’ve gotten a read on the likes of defencemen Joe Piskula and Clay Wilson, as well as forwards such as Paul Byron, Roman Horak and Krys Kolanos. Blueliner Brian Connelly is likely next to get a look,

That kind of thinking is what the Flames need to do before starting the next phase of the rebuilding program Jay Feaster has implemented.

Already, the Flames have discovered rookie defenceman T.J. Brodie has a bright future.

The team will use Kiprusoff as much as possible while the playoffs are in sight, but Irving has earned a shot to show what he can do.

“Leland is pushing to be one of two goalies in the National Hockey League, for us or for some other team if it doesn’t work here,” Sutter added. “He wants it. He’s gone through a growing period, and experiencing that, mentally, is going to be good for him.”

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNRandySportak


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