Bulin Wall searches for saves

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 3:18 PM ET


 Nearly all the hockey experts gave the goaltending edge to the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into the 2004 Stanley Cup final.

 So, let's get this straight.

 Nikolai Khabibulin over Miikka Kiprusoff?

 The shaky Bulin Wall over the Kipper of consistency?

 The streaky Russian goalie over the even-keeled Finnish puckstopper?

 Sounds Greek to anyone who knows the two 'tenders.

 In Game 1, Kiprusoff proved to be better than Khabibulin and set the Calgary Flames off on the right foot in this championship series.

 And don't be surprised if it's a recurring theme in the Stanley Cup final, regardless of what the so-called experts believe.

 Sure, the Flames may have won last night's series-opener on a couple of fortuitous bounces -- the pinball goal to open scoring and the second one logged by Jarome Iginla -- but Kiprusoff still outplayed Khabibulin in securing the victory.

 Khabibulin has the edge in playoff experience but he's proven he can be beaten time and again -- just as he was four times by the Flames last night. And when it goes bad for Khabibulin, he's hard-pressed to find the bounce-back poise that has become Kiprusoff's hallmark.

 There was no bouncing back for Khabibulin last night.

 In fact, he looked lost on more than one occasion.

 In the second period, a Chris Simon shot hit him high and the Lightning goalie lost the puck in his feet.

 Later in the second, Khabibulin failed to handle another high puck on Rhett Warrener's shot from the point. Then, Shean Donovan nearly chipped in the rebound with the Lightning goalie again looking for the puck.

 Eventually in the second, Khabibulin's game-wide search for the rubber hurt him on the Flames' second goal. Sure, the Russian robbed Jarome Iginla on the shorthanded breakaway but with the puck popping up high and landing loose beside him, it was another sign of Khabibulin's inability to track the puck and recover in time.

 Perhaps the Flames noticed that. They continually shot pucks high on Khabibulin during Game 1, as if to exploit a weakness in his game.

 It worked.

 Meanwhile, at the other end, Kiprusoff was his usual steady self.

 Nothing spectacular.

 There was no steal of this game, as he is prone to do at least once or twice in a series.

 The Lightning may find that out soon enough. And by that time, it may be too late for the Eastern Conference champions despite their high-octane offence.

 "I think we know when he sees it, he's a good first-chance goalie," said Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk. "There were some rebounds there but their defence didn't give us a lot of second chances.

 "He moved very well. He made a lot of good cross-crease saves."

 Kipper makes those with regularity, making him the backbone of the Flames' defence-first gameplan.

 "I think prior to them scoring the goal, he made two or three big saves," said Flames GM-head coach Darryl Sutter.

 Better still were the saves he made after the Lightning scored and threatened to close to within one goal in the last half of the third period. His best came off Pavel Kubina from about 20 ft. out, taking a shot high off the shoulder.

 But he never lost sight of the puck. Not like Khabibulin.

 What's scary for the Lightning is Kipper can be much better.

 "He makes us feel confident," said Flames playoff veteran Martin Gelinas. "He's our leader back there."

 He can be the difference not just in goal but in the series.


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