Miikka Kiprusoff inched out of his crease, watching the puck, waiting as Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards skated in alone on a short-handed breakaway. There was no score in the second period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday, and Richards had plenty of options against the Calgary Flames' 6'2", 190-pound goalie. Deke. Shoot high gloveside. Go low blocker. Test the five hole. Kiprusoff was reading a shot to the glove-hand post but then saw Richards slightly alter the angle of his stick to try to beat him stickside instead. Richards wristed a shot, the puck rising toward a yawning top corner. "I saw him get a piece of it," Richards would say later in the Lightning dressing room, the only quiet place in Calgary after the game. "When I saw that, I had the feeling, Oh, this isn't good. Nothing good was going to come of that." Not for Tampa Bay, anyway. Sixteen seconds after Kiprusoff's dramatic save with his blocker, the Flames' Chris Simon scored on the power play. Calgary was on its way to a 3-0 win.
Said the goalie of his game-turning stop, "I was a little lucky."
That's Miikka Kiprusoff—two i's, two k's, two f's, no sexy quotes.
One day after Canadian prime minister Paul Martin traipsed into the dressing room to meet players and receive a personalized Flames jersey, Kiprusoff provided a 60-minute photo op in Game 3 that was considerably more dazzling. See the Kipper whip from post to post. Watch him thrust out his right pad on Lightning sniper Ruslan Fedotenko's shot and make a leg save worthy of Dominik Hasek in his prime. See him peer through traffic and turn aside blasts from the point. Although the Lightning rallied to deadlock the series at two games apiece with a 1-0 win on Monday, Kiprusoff allowed Tampa to score only when it had a two-man advantage. Going into Game 5, he has a league-high five playoff shutouts and a tiny 1.83 goals-against average and has been the foundation for the Flames' improbable Stanley Cup pursuit. He has the Lightning in a bottle.
If this was below-the-fold stuff in your sports section, the return of the Stanley Cup final to a hockey-besotted nation after a 10-year absence was bold-type, Al material all over Canada. The ESPN telecast of the series opener drew little more than a million U.S. viewers, but in Canada it attracted some 3 million on CBC and another 500,000 on RDS, a French-language sports network based in Quebec. Let's check the math: There was more than triple the number of viewers for Flames-Lightning in a nation with about one tenth the population of the U.S.
Of course the epicenter of this True North nuttiness was Calgary, an oil city of nearly 1 million that feels more like down-home Denver than Toronto. To Calgarians, the home games were like a cross between Christmas morning and their 21st birthdays. Downtown was abuzz with celebratory fans honking their car horns and chanting, "Go Flames Go!" And that was in the afternoon before Game 3. This was a city as mosh pit, joined vicariously by the rest of a nation that shares its infatuation for a rank underdog—the team and the sport. (Except Quebec, of course, where sentiment was split because of the homegrown darlings who play for Tampa Bay, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.)
While Calgary was awash in its "C of Red," there was something more sepiatoned about Kiprusoff. He arrived in Calgary last November from another team and another time. He makes stylish, old-time saves, the kind that predominated before heavily armored goalies began dropping to their knees, puffing themselves up like bullfrogs and waiting for the puck to strike them. Kiprusoff made 21 saves last Saturday, and the quality was every bit as important as the quantity.
"Maybe we're trying to move the puck and get him out of position too much," Lightning center Tim Taylor said after Game 3. "It's almost like it was when we used to play against Hasek. The coaches would go over and over the goaltender, and you'd end up thinking too much."
"Sometimes," Tampa Bay captain Dave Andreychuk said, "a goalie can get into your head."
In that case Kiprusoff was living in a three-bedroom between the Lightning's collective cerebrum and cerebral cortex. The preseries favorite, Tampa Bay did not handle either Kiprusoff or its first experience in the final with much aplomb, alternating wildly between efforts that were middling and inspired. That could be an outgrowth of the mood set by tightly wound coach John Tortorella, who seemed to be enjoying the finals about as much as a tax audit. He is a passionate advocate for hockey, but his single-mindedness can seem peevish. After Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle's house was severely damaged by fire during Game 1, a 4-1 Calgary win, Tortorella downplayed the event, saying that because no one was injured, it was "just a bunch of wood burning." Sure. And the trophy NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will award at the end of the series is just a hunk of silver.