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Brian Elliott #30 of the Ottawa Senators stretches before a game against the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place on October 30, 2010 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The Boston Bruins defeated the Ottawa Senators 4-0.(Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images) (Phillip MacCallum/2010 Getty Images)
Brian Elliott #30 of the Ottawa Senators stretches before a game against the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place on October 30, 2010 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The Boston Bruins defeated the Ottawa Senators 4-0.(Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images) (Phillip MacCallum/2010 Getty Images)

Eric Duhatschek

Playing hockey's blame game Add to ...

There's a peculiar ethic in the world of professional hockey that I've never fully understood relating to NHL goaltenders and their responsibility for a given win or a loss.

No matter how badly a goalie plays, no matter how much of a factor they are in any given defeat, no coach will ever say 'tonight's loss is our goalie's fault.' They might say something to the effect that "our netminder might have liked a couple of those back" but that is almost as far any coach, even the most critical of coaches, will go.

In a roundabout way, this brings us to the mini-tempest in a teapot that has revolved around the Calgary Flames these past few days. On Thursday night, the Flames held a series of leads over the Colorado Avalanche, but couldn't hold them and ultimately lost a 6-5 decision. Afterwards, coach Brent Sutter was steaming about players not buying into the system and saying things like 'our best players weren't very good' - essentially laying the blame for the defeat on everybody but the culprit that night, rookie goaltender Henrik Karlsson.

Now Karlsson is an interesting case study. He is 6 feet 5 inches tall, he played well in the preseason and he won his NHL debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets a couple of weeks back. He has already earned a catchy nickname - the Calgary Tower. For the first time in a long time, the Flames have someone they might trust to spell Miikka Kiprusoff from time to time.

But last Thursday, in his first official game at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Karlsson wasn't very good - and Karlsson not being very good was the primary reason they lost.

Not the system.

Not the buy-in from star players.

A first-year goalie, with perhaps some opening-night jitters, gave up a couple of softies to let Colorado back in the game. The momentum changed and Calgary couldn't get it back. It happens to the best of them - to Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, and even to Kiprusoff occasionally.

So what would have been the harm in saying, 'We have faith in our first-year goaltender, but tonight, well, he struggled.' Instead, Sutter talked vaguely about how the team's best players still won't play the way he wants them too on the defensive side of the puck, thus opening up the latest chapter in the 'Is Jarome Iginla happy/unwanted/looking for a new home/starting to decline?' discussion. It filled the local airwaves for the next 48 hours - and spilled over into Saturday's disastrous 7-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, which wasn't the fault of the starting goaltender, but the result of a couple of bad penalties at a time when the Flames had cruised out to an early 2-0 lead and were looking pretty good .

Iginla's primary contribution was being stationed on the edge of the goal crease, when Capitals goaltender Michal Neuwirth tripped him just as Alex Tanguay was scoring a goal to close the second-period gap. The goal was waved off by a dubious goaltender interference penalty and whatever hopes the Flames may have entertained of a comeback ended right there. After an own goal by Cory Sarich, followed by a penalty-shot goal by David Steckel - the rout was on.

Maybe the worst display of whatever is the opposite of clutch goaltending occurred in a 1993 playoff game, a 9-6 win for the Los Angeles Kings over the Calgary Flames, with crazy lead changes, tons of scoring, but really no highlight-reel goals of any description. It was just two goalies, Jeff Reese and Robb Stauber, that had a hard time stopping the puck, any puck.

Theo Fleury's was usually about the most candid voice in the Flames dressing room in those days, so that was where the subject of goaltending was broached.

Now, try to imagine the following sentences spoken by Fleury in a world-weary tone, where his body language said one thing and his words said another.

"It wasn't the goaltending," said Fleury, who then stopped for a long, pregnant pause. "It's never the goaltending."

Right. It never is the goaltending - not officially, not in the post-game deconstructions that we ask nightly of players and coaches. Too bad. A little refreshing honesty in those sorts of situations - with the realization that everybody can have a bad night sometimes - would go a long way to keeping the peace on a Flames team that was a respectable 6-3 before Thursday night's loss, but now looks as if it's in freefall, with a lot of unhappy people moping in and around that dressing room.

Might that compunction ever change? You can always hope, but my guess is, no, it never will.

 

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