Miikka inherits the earth

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

Think the Kipper phenomenon in the Stampede City was out of this world?

Andrew Ference has seen bigger.

In the spring of 2001, Ference -- then with the Pittsburgh Penguins -- saw western Pennsylvania go ballistic over a little-known netminder named Johan Hedberg, who burst on the scene directly from the AHL Manitoba Moose and carried the Pens to the conference finals.

"There were 16,000 people with moose antlers in the stands," Ference said. "If that's not a phenomenon, I'm not sure what is."

Hedberg has never been able to duplicate that kind of success, joining the likes of Steve Penney, Blaine Lacher and Jim Carey in the whatever- happened-to file.

This season, hockey fans will watch to see if Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff can avoid a similar fate.

Kiprusoff came seemingly from nowhere during the 2003-04 season.

When it began, he was a regular in the press box, sitting third on the San Jose Sharks depth chart and awaiting a trade that finally came Nov. 16 when his former coach, Darryl Sutter, swung a deal that brought him to the Flames, who needed a goalie with Roman Turek injured.

Kiprusoff's Flames debut, a 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, was a sign of things to come. Suddenly, the offensively challenged Flames were a winner thanks to a nearly unbeatable goaltender.

Within seven months, Kiprusoff helped the Flames reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, set a modern-day NHL record with a 1.69 goals-against average and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

Even with some advance knowledge, Flames forward Shean Donovan was amazed.

"I knew the goaltending coach there and everybody had been saying San Jose had probably the most depth in goaltenders around the league, so I knew we were getting a good one," Donovan said.

"He's the real deal, that's what he is, and I know that now."

The Kiprusoff who arrived in the winter of 2003 is much different from the one who'll take his station between the pipes in tonight's season opener in Minnesota.

It's not just the accolades or the three-year, $10-million contract. When he arrived, Kiprusoff exhibited natural talent and athleticism. Right away, though, Flames goaltending coach David Marcoux knew he had to refine those skills.

Kiprusoff relied on his quickness to get away with over-challenging shooters, so Marcoux's first order of business was to rein in that aggressiveness.

"To have him understand when to challenge at the top of his crease and when to move back into his net deep enough was a big thing, especially since he understood it right off the bat," Marcoux said.

Since then, they've worked on Kiprusoff's ability to play the puck, his communication and puck-stopping skills. The best part, Marcoux said, is the goalie's willingness to learn.

"He's a great student. For me, to have the privilege to work with a guy like that, one of the top goaltenders in the league with the mindset of finding ways to be better, is outstanding," Marcoux said.

"He's never satisfied. To have a 1.69 goals-against average, that is a team statistic. But that .933 save percentage is him. He's a battler, he loves to compete and he loves to win. You can tell that in practice.

"Iggy (Jarome Iginla) was saying how good it is to try and score against Miikka in practice because he doesn't give you an easy goal. That pushes our players to be better, to pick the corners a little more, hit the net and drive for rebounds."

Ference insists Kiprusoff won't be a flash in the pan.

"He's his own person," Ference said. "Whether or not there's been goalies in the past who have had short success and then nothing after, it's their situation but Miikka writes his own ticket."


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