Friday, March 31, 2006
Who has Hart? Kiprusoff most valuable to his team
By George Johnson Special to ESPN.com
Others possess a more miserly goals-against average. More wins. A better save percentage.
His GAA has inflated, ever slightly, from the amazing, pre-1967-expansion-like 1.69 posted during the 2003-04 pre-lockout regular season.
Through March 31, Miikka Kiprusoff has a 36-20 record with a 2.18 goals-against average for the Flames.
Yet not only is Miikka Kiprusoff, the mute Finn, the NHL's best goaltender this season, he's got the credentials to back up a Hart Trophy campaign, too.
By the definition of the award, Kiprusoff among all others deserves the accolade: " to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.''
"That's him,'' winger Darren McCarty said. "Our backbone. Championship teams build from the goalie out, and that's what's been done here. Without him it doesn't work. He's there night after night.''
McCarty then cracks a small smile. "I suppose you've noticed that we, uh, don't score all that many goals. We try to play solid defense in front of Kipper and help him as much as possible, but whenever we need him, he's there to bail us out.''
So, then, Kiprusoff is fully worthy of MVP status?
"C'mon '' McCarty snorts. "Of course. Are you kidding me?''
The argument has been joined before, of course. Often: best player/most indispensable to his club. The same thing, or subtly different? Maybe there should be an ornate bauble presented for each just to make the call more fair.
Jaromir Jagr's exploits in Manhattan deserve "Producers"-like curtain calls: One of only three Rangers ever to score 50 goals, a franchise record for most points in a season and the incredible feat of having helped pull New York out of a seven-season spin of missing the playoffs altogether.
Joe Thornton's arrival has thrown the sinking San Jose Sharks a postseason lifeline. And rookie Alexander Ovechkin has performed individual miracles in Washington.
Thornton's qualifications likely rest on San Jose cracking the top eight in the Western Conference, while the Caps are so far off the beaten track out East that it seems absurd to imagine Ovechkin winning the Hart, even if he is pretty much a one-man band.
Playing in a mega-media market, on an Original Six team, and inarguably enjoying a superb season, Jagr is a comprehensive, odds-on favorite to sway the Hart Trophy voters.
Kiprusoff, no matter how deserving, remains a rank outsider. And that's a pity.
If he can somehow piggyback the talent-deprived, singles-hitting Flames into first place in the Northwest (often called the toughest division in hockey), Kiprusoff deserves every honor that does comes his way. And in all likelihood, one that won't.
"I don't think about that stuff,'' he argued, smiling blandly, doing his best Marcel Marceau impression. "Maybe after the season. Right now, I'm just trying to help the team win games. It's very close in the West. Every game is so important.''
Kiprusoff's importance to the Flames is, as McCarty said, fundamental. The season captain Jarome Iginla won both the Art Ross and Maurice Richard trophies in 2001-02, for instance, this franchise didn't even qualify for the playoffs.
They had ol' "Large," Roman Turek himself, in net back then.
Kiprusoff is clearly the difference maker.
He'll be hurt no doubt by the unreasonably flattering predictions most voters had of the Flames coming off their magical-mystery-tour run (which Kiprusoff inspired, it must be noted) to the Stanley Cup final two springtimes ago. They'll just see this season as a matter of course.
Most of it, though, is down to one man.
In terms of publicizing his feats of derring-do, Kiprusoff doesn't get nearly what his play warrants. He himself is quiet to the point of requiring subtitles when conducting an interview ("So laid back,'' McCarty said, "that he's almost the anti-goalie"). His coach, Darryl Sutter, who has built this team on a collective mind-set and is therefore loathe to heap praise on any individual, persistently plays down the contributions of his undeniably brilliant goaltender with the icy retort: "That's his job. To stop the puck.''
It is. But he does it better than anyone else in the game today.
He also receives less offensive support than any goalie in the league, meaning he has less room for error than anyone else at the position. The Flames are a bunch of fiercely competitive, Captain Hook-handed overachievers who score goals with only slightly more frequency than the regrettable Columbus Blue Jackets or Chicago Blackhawks. Columbus just happens to be 11 games below .500, the Hawks 16 games, and both are so far out of the playoff picture you couldn't find them with the Hubble telescope.
The Flames, meanwhile, just happen to find themselves pirouetting up in Cirque du Soleil country, high above the crowd, 16 games above .500 and vying with the far more extravagantly talented Colorado Avalanche for the division lead, and the automatic third seeding in the West.
Of their 40 wins this season, Kiprusoff has been in goal for 36 of them. Without him, saddled with lesser goaltending, this is a 12th- or 13th-place team in the West, in spite of its hard-working, all-sacrificing makeup.
With him, it's fighting for a division title and capable of another unlikely playoff journey. If that isn't qualification for serious Hart Trophy attention, what on earth could be?
"There are two or three other guys who deserve consideration, sure,'' McCarty said. "But Kipper's right there. He doesn't need to take a back seat to anyone. Your goaltender is the most important player on any team.''
Kiprusoff should be a lock for the Vezina. But he deserves more. Remember, by the definition of the award: " to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.''
Yes, it is difficult to imagine the Rangers without Jagr.
It's impossible to imagine the Flames without Kiprusoff.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.