Finns fuelled by Cup

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:37 PM ET


 Miikka Kiprusoff's steady nerves and cool demeanor were earned the hard way, not by facing lightning-quick slapshots off the sticks of NHLers.

 No, the Flames goalie's veins were first filled with ice-water as a lad growing up in Turku, Finland, playing street hockey and facing a frozen tennis ball with little equipment to protect one's vital parts.

 Providing the ammunition were brother Marko and neighbourhood pal Saku Koivu, now captain of the Montreal Canadiens.

 "I was the youngest, so they put me in net," Kiprusoff, 27, chuckled yesterday at the Saddledome while recounting his childhood in the Finnish town of 170,000, noting cold quickly turned the ball into a veritable bullet.

 "With a tennis ball, even on ice, it was more fun to be in net ... until it freezes."

 Kiprusoff's brother Marko, four years his elder, played two NHL seasons as a defenceman with Montreal and the New York Islanders and now plays in Sweden, although he's missing the playoffs with a back injury.

 Although Marko Kiprusoff never toiled in the NHL playoffs, he excelled while winning a world championship with Finland in 1995 and playing in the Lillehammer Olympics. But even as a child growing up in Europe, the ultimate stage for the hockey-mad brothers was always the NHL and the fight for the Stanley Cup.

 "First of all, it was (a goal) to play in Finnish League, the national team, too, but there it's the same way as here," Miikka Kiprusoff remembered.

 "All the kids want to make it in the NHL and want to win Stanley Cup. It's huge there, too.

 "The Olympics is like a couple of weeks tournament but the NHL is the best league in the world and everybody wants to play here."

 Miikka Kiprusoff's surprising ascent to the NHL's goaltending elite this season makes him a lock for selection to the Finnish national team for this fall's World Cup and possibly a reunion with his brother. His 1.69 goals-against average this season and two playoff shutouts, including Saturday in Detroit, has surely caught the eye of Finnish hockey's brain trust.

 Across the ice, Miikka could very well be staring down Flames teammate Jarome Iginla, although as usual, he's unaffected.

 "We'll see ... I own him in practice," Kiprusoff laughed.

 His 31-stop shutout in Detroit continues a remarkable trend of recovering from a loss by posting another outstanding performance. Giving up three goals in Detroit's 4-2 win Thursday spurred an outstanding effort at Joe Louis Arena, although Kiprusoff deflects some of the praise to his teammates.

 "If we have quite a weak game defensively, weak game for me, too, I think the team is more ready (to play defensively the next game)," Kiprusoff explained.

 "But I don't think we play differently. Everybody tries to do the same things, it doesn't matter what happened last game.

 "We learn, too, from our mistakes but this is a hard-working team that tries to play the same way every night. I think they've been doing it all year, blocking shots, and that's fun to play behind because they really work hard at it."

 Flames coach Darryl Sutter suggests Kiprusoff's remarkable play also spurs on his teammates to extend themselves in front of him, making extra plays defensively for the man who's saved them on many nights.

 "If you know you've got a guy who's going to make a big save or be consistent for you, it gives your team a lot more confidence -- it's the most important position on the ice -- but we just try to stick to our game plan and not let anything else bother us," Sutter says.

 "And that's what Kipper does, too. You see he responds ... he's a good adversity guy."

 And when facing that adversity, he never sweats, rarely falters, despite the pressure and attention his position warrants.

 Kind of like a bull rider at the Calgary Stampede, something he hopes to experience from the safe side of the fence this July.

 "I think so, I've been talking about that a little bit," Kiprusoff smiled. "It sounds like fun. But let's not think about summer yet!"


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