CALGARY — Facing his former team in the second round of NHL playoffs is a spicy prospect for Calgary Flames goaltender Jonas Hiller.
Prior to Hiller’s arrival in Calgary last summer, the Anaheim Ducks were his first and only NHL team. He was their No. 1 for the majority of his seven seasons in Anaheim until a precipitous fall from favour just over a year ago.
The Calgary goalie’s familiarity with their playoff foe adds an interesting wrinkle to what is already the Cinderella story of this year’s NHL post-season.
“I can’t deny that it’s something special,” Hiller said Monday. “Knowing a team you used to play seven years for, I think that makes it a little more special than playing against another team.”
Calgary wasn’t considered a playoff contender in the second year of a rebuild, but the Flames open a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal in Anaheim later this week. The NHL had yet to release the schedule Monday.
The Flames haven’t won a regular-season game at the Honda Centre since 2004. Calgary won a single playoff game in three played there in 2006.
Hiller went 2-2 against his former club this season, including a pair of losses in Anaheim, but he feels comfortable in that arena.
“You walk in there and everything just feels so much more familiar than any other rink because I’ve been there for such a long time,” he said.
Hiller was pulled less than eight minutes into Calgary’s 7-4 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday to take the series four games to two.
Hiller gave up two goals on three shots before reliever Karri Ramo stopped 17 of 19 for the win. Flames head coach Bob Hartley didn’t hesitate, however, when asked Monday who his Game 1 starter will be.
“Jones Hiller, there’s no doubt in my mind,” the coach stated.
Hiller’s 33 saves helped Calgary clinch a playoff spot with a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings in the last home game of the regular season.
The 33-year-old from Felben-Wellhausen, Switzerland, carried a solid goals-against average of 1.84 and a save percentage .942 through the first five games of the opening round against the Canucks.
“Look at the games that Jonas gave us all year, but more importantly against the Kings and then in the playoffs,” Hartley said.
Hiller started the majority of Calgary’s regular-season games for a 26-19-4 record in 52 outings, a 2.36 g.a.a and a save percentage of .918.
But Hartley fostered a natural competition between Hiller and Ramo as he was quick to switch goalies during games and gave Ramo five consecutive starts midway through the season.
The coach’s philosophy was the goalie who won the last game, or who played well enough for the Flames to win even if they didn’t, started the next. Hiller tightened his grip on the starter’s job for the post-season with a 4-1 record in his last five starts of the regular season, including 42 saves in a 4-1 loss to St. Louis. Ramo also was injured in the regular-season finale, which clarified Calgary’s goaltending for the playoffs.
The Ducks demoted Hiller from starter to third-stringer in the final days of the 2013-14 regular season in favour of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, now 25 and 21.
Hiller did appear in Anaheim’s second-round series against the Kings when Andersen was injured, but the Ducks did not offer Hiller a contract extension.
Calgary signed the free agent in July to a two-year, $9-million contract.
Hiller downplayed the notion of revenge as a motivator in the upcoming series against the Ducks.
“I don’t know if I need extra motivation to prove them wrong,” he said. “If you’re in the second round of Stanley Cup playoffs, I don’t know if you need extra motivation to play a former team.
“In the end, I’m really happy how it turned out because otherwise I couldn’t have lived through what we went through with this team in Calgary here this season, which has been a great story, great fun and hopefully we can keep it going.”