In cowboy culture, the black hat is synonymous with the bad guy, the villain, the spoiler – and it is a role that Jonas Hiller will gladly embrace, now that the second-round matchup against his former team, the Anaheim Ducks, is set.
Hiller, the Calgary Flames goaltender, wears a distinctive glossy jet-black mask that has all the important details – the team logo, the nod to family – painted in an offsetting matte black. Up close, where the Ducks will likely be, crowding Hiller in his crease, it is a gorgeous thing, a genuine work of art, with all of its intricate swirls and whirls.
Hiller, wearing that black mask, will try to help the Flames commit grand larceny and steal a series in which they will be the heavy underdogs. Thanks to a stirring come-from-behind 7-4 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night, the Flames became the first Canadian team to advance to the second playoff round, where Hiller will be a central figure in the Pacific Division final. And make no mistake about his motivation.
"At the end, you want nothing more than to beat that team and prove to them they made a mistake not re-signing you," said Hiller, in an interview following the series-clinching game. "It should be a fun series.
"I spent seven years there. I know so many people there. Sure, the team has changed since last year, but just to be in that building, which was home for me for so long, it's definitely going to be special."
Hiller won three of the four games as the Flames eliminated the favoured Canucks, but he was pulled less than three minutes into the deciding game, after Calgary fell behind by two goals early.
Karri Ramo replaced him, and was the beneficiary of an extraordinary outpouring of offence, as Calgary became just the fourth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to record a series-clinching win in regulation, when trailing by three goals or more. Six different players collected three or more points in the game, as the Flames advanced past the opening round for just the second time since 1989, the year they won the only championship in team history.
Postgame, Flames coach Bob Hartley explained he pulled Hiller not for performance reasons, but to change the momentum in a game that was going south quickly, and said he later apologized to Hiller, in front of the team, just to make that clear.
Up until this season, Hiller played his entire career for the Ducks, having joined the NHL from Davos in the Swiss league for the start of the 2007-08 season. Things went pretty well, too, until last year, when a goaltending controversy developed in the playoffs. Hiller was the veteran, but the Ducks also had two impressive youngsters, John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, in the organization.
Ultimately, Hiller became the odd man out after the Ducks lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. He was permitted to leave as an unrestricted free agent, signing a two-year contract with the Flames.
And though there were times this year when Hiller was on the bench for Calgary, too, he did carry the bulk of the goaltending load, appearing in 50 games, helping to stabilize a position that had been in flux since Mikka Kiprusoff's retirement.
The twist in this tale is that back in November, 2003, Kiprusoff joined Calgary in a trade from San Jose and then proceeded to be the difference-maker when the Flames knocked off the Sharks, his former team, in the Western Conference final later that spring. Those would be good footsteps to follow in.
"If somebody had told me a year ago that I would be playing the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I would probably say, 'Yeah, I'd take that any time' – even though it seemed really far away," Hiller said. "Now, being here, it's definitely something special."
One of Hartley's greatest accomplishments as the coach of a team that was lightly regarded at the start of the season has been riding the hot goaltending hand all year. Unlike some coaches, who let the goalie coach handle most of the day-to-day communication with the team's netminders, Hartley says he talks to his goalies all the time.
"This is the only sport, if you read the rule book, it says, 'a team is consisted of 18 players and two goalies," Hartley said. "There's a separation. So for me, I try to cancel that separation. Our goalies are in all our meetings. I like to connect with them. Most of the time, I'm the one who tells them if they do or don't play. I go to them and I say, 'stay ready.' With our situation, I thought that was important.
"In Colorado, I had Patrick Roy and David Aebischer. Every month, I would give them monthly schedules, with their games circled. So the schedule was set, and I didn't have to worry who was starting and we never changed a start.
"Here, it's been a game-to-game situation all year because we have two veterans capable of winning us games. I have to give them lots of credit, because their relationship is unbelievable. It's a very friendly competitive relationship. They both want to play, but they understand the situation, and they made my job way easier."
Hartley says he always has goalie coach Jordan Sigalet with him when he speaks to his goaltenders. Sigalet replaced Clint Malarchuk as Calgary's goaltending coach this past year and worked with Hiller for the first time.
"When you've got a guy of his age who's been in the league that long, he's got here for a reason," Sigalet said. "So it's not about reinventing his game. Otherwise, it involves too much thinking for him. It's just being another set of eyes, and making little tweaks. A lot of it is just mental – keeping him positive and confident."
Did Sigalet believe Hiller's confidence needed to be restored, based on how it ended in Anaheim? Or did he just need an opportunity?
"Obviously, he was pretty defeated at the end of the year there in Anaheim, but just to get out of there, was a weight off his shoulders," Sigalet said.
"He came in pretty confident. Just the fact that he was getting a fresh start, he had a new team to prove himself to – which he did this season and continues to do."
As much as he'd like to knock them off, the Ducks will be a formidable opponent, Hiller said.
"They definitely have skill and size and play their system pretty consistently," he said. "There's a reason they were first in the conference. With our speed, we have a chance, but I think we have to play better than even in the Vancouver series.