SAN JOSE, Calif. – Not that he has anything against a baseball cap, but don't blame Miikka Kiprusoff if he's getting sick and tired of finishing games here wearing one.
The Calgary goalie found himself in an all-too-familiar position Thursday night in the Shark Tank, getting pulled from a start and trading his mask for a cap as he watched from the bench. The last time he got the hook was in San Jose – Game 7 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, no less – last season.
Thursday night's 6-1 embarrassment was not nearly as devastating as the 5-3 season-ending loss last spring, but it gave Kiprusoff & Co. pause for thought. Why are the Flames so inconsistent, and is any of it about to change?
"We just have to work hard, that's how we are as a team," Kiprusoff said. "When we all do it on the same night, we have a good chance to win in this league. That's what we have to do. We're not the most skilled team, but we have to be a tough team to beat."
Calgary won just once during regulation in its first five games, then ran off six straight victories. Kiprusoff was key during the stretch of success from Oct. 21-Nov. 1, allowing only nine goals in the six games, while his teammates scored four or more goals just twice. He didn't have much margin for error, but that's not something that bothers the 32-year-old.
The result against the Sharks leaves the Flames with five losses in their last seven games since the winning streak.
"They pushed us out of it in the first period," Calgary captain Jarome Iginla said. "We all know the importance of how much more we have to bring in our game. Our game is competing and we're not bringing enough right now. We'll get it back."
Thursday night's meltdown came almost without warning. Kiprusoff was quick as a cat on a flurry of early Sharks chances. He slid on his knees to his right, anticipating a Ryane Clowe shot. He denied Devin Setoguchi twice in close, too. Maybe asking him to make three solid saves in the opening two minutes was foreboding evidence of what was to come.
Twenty-seven seconds later, and at even strength, Kiprusoff bit on a deke by a breaking Milan Michalek, who easily wristed a shot past the fooled goalie for a 2-0 lead. A mental mistake – too many men on the ice (how ironic on a night it seemed like Calgary never had enough out there) – led to power-play goal No. 2 of the period. Kiprusoff couldn't track a shot from the point that just hit him. Patrick Marleau punched the rebound home.
"When teams have players like that on the point you have to take them away," Kiprusoff said of Blake and Dan Boyle. "They have a lot of skill, too, so that makes it a good power play."
Still, there was no move to the backup yet for coach Mike Keenan, who probably would have done it after Joe Thornton scored easily on yet another power play but only 2:18 remained in the period, and that didn't seem all that fair to 25-year-old rookie Curtis McElhinney.
If Kiprusoff didn't stop Marleau on a mini-break late, it could have been 5-0 instead of 4-0 during a period in which the Sharks enjoyed a 20-5 edge in shots.
"That was a barrage," Keenan said. "I mean, we gave up 20 shots in the first period. I made a change for the sake of trying to change some momentum of some kind."
McElhinney's chance predictably came in the second period, and he quickly got indoctrinated as San Jose's second shot of the period – Michalek's tap-in goal at the side of the net 78 seconds into the session – slipped behind him.
"They came out hard and we weren't ready for them," Kiprusoff said. "We know they're a hot team and one of the top teams in the league right now. They played hard and they got chances."
For whatever reason, the Flames were not ready at the outset of the game. They weren't ready to skate with a fast-starting team. They weren't ready to compete for pucks against a strong forecheck. They weren't ready to compete for every inch of ice in the same manner San Jose has done while rolling to a league-best 14-3-1 start.
But where it goes from here depends on two things: the Flames getting back to the identity of being a hard-working, difficult team to play, and their goalie. Kiprusoff has no choice but to play up to the form that won him the 2006 Vezina Trophy if Calgary is to overcome its shortcomings. Fair or not, that's the simple reality.
It's one reason why Kiprusoff was given the marching orders he apparently followed – to show up at training camp in tip-top shape. The perception is that he spends too much time early in the season getting his fitness level to a point where he can be an elite goalie. The Flames don't want to see any more slow starts from their man in net.
Sure enough, Kiprusoff played the first 14 games from start to finish. Resting just once before Thursday night's hook, he came into the game having played just three minutes less than anyone else. And his numbers just aren't good enough, yet, to be making a difference – 3.31 goals-against average and a .889 save percentage before the Shark attack.
"I feel all right," Kiprusoff said before deflecting the focus. "As a team, we've had an up-and-down season so far. We have to play more on the same level, and not like tonight. It's going to be a close race in our division again. It's going to be hard to take that first seed."
"I think [Craig] Conroy said it was a measuring stick," Keenan added. "Well, you play a team like this and it tells you where you are in terms of your own development. We got a good sense of reality."