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Flames lean on netminder Talbot in bounce-back year


Life hadn’t always looked so effortless for Cam Talbot.

Think back to over a year ago, well before the 33-year-old netminder from Caledonia, Ont., backstopped the Calgary Flames to a best-of-five series win over the Winnipeg Jets in four games, which was completed by a 4-0 shutout Thursday in Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifying Round.

“I don’t think you can move him at that salary. I just don’t think he’s moveable,” longtime GM-turned-Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke told Edmonton Oilers radio in January of 2019.

“I don’t think anyone is going to take a UFA that is making that kind of money and hope he gets his game straightened out for the last month of the year.”

At the time, Talbot, who was carrying a heavy US$4.166-million cap hit was ranked 29 out of 29 National Hockey League goaltenders with a .896 save percentage among those having played more than 25 games.

A few days later, the now-gone Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli went all-in on netminder Mikko Koskinen and offered him a three-year deal worth an average cap hit of $4.5-million per year.

That pretty much summed up what the organization thought, back then, of Talbot who was a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.

Chiarelli, of course, was fired a few days after that.

Talbot, meanwhile, was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz and would become part of an odd, three-goalie tandem with Brian Elliott and Carter Hart.

His final numbers were not flattering: an 11-17-3 record, a bloated 3.40 goals-against average and an .892 save percentage.

Back in Edmonton for a different purpose, in an unprecedented scenario due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and on a different team, Talbot has been full of confidence this past week.

After outplaying counterpart David Rittich during the NHL’s ‘Return To Play’ training camp following the pause, he won the right to be given the starter’s job on the night before Game 1.

And while he had help from his teammates who produced on the power play, displayed a significant commitment to defence and managed the emotions of the game in the series against the Jets, Talbot did his part by out-playing Vezina Trophy nominee Connor Hellebuyck.

As a result, he posted a tidy 1.51 GAA and a stellar .945 save percentage.

“When we had breakdowns, our goaltender was huge,” said Flames head coach Geoff Ward on Thursday night after his squad finished off the Jets. “Through the course of the series, he was our best player. And you need really good goaltending at this time of the year — he gave it to us. But I thought our team defence was a real key for us on top of the goaltending.”

The Flames now await their next opponent, currently competing in the seeding round of the Stanley Cup qualifiers which could be either the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues or Dallas Stars.

It’s an odd year — nothing about life these days is normal. But Talbot, through it all, has displayed a quiet, calm nature, and it started the time he arrived with the Flames last fall after signing a one-year deal worth US$2.75-million with the Flames on July 1.

He quietly worked with Calgary’s goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet to find his game again while Rittich was busy with No. 1 netminding duties. When the time came and Rittich struggled after appearing at the NHL All-Star Game, Talbot helped steady the waters and was arguably looking like the go-to guy at the time of the NHL pause in March.

Talbot remained committed to his craft during the uncertainty, continuing to work out daily and skate with his longtime goaltending coach Pat Di Pronio in Hamilton at the Grainger Training Centre.

Throughout the series, it showed.

“It’s been a long journey,” agreed Talbot, in the moments following his third career playoff shutout and the second series-clinching shutout in Flames history following in Miikka Kiprusoff’s footsteps, who did so in Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals. “Last year, the last couple years, didn’t really go the way I wanted it to. I was looking for that kind-of redemption year. When you look at this lineup and I had the opportunity to sign here, it was kind of a no-brainer to play behind a group like this.

“I knew that if I could come in and get back to playing my game and get some confidence back, I could prove I can be a starting goaltender in this league. It was a huge confidence boost for me when the coaching staff and the guys had the confidence in me to go with me in Game 1. I just tried to go in and give us a chance to win and make that decision look like a good one. I’ve gotta thank them for that opportunity, and I’m trying to take it and run with it for now.”

Talbot has earned it, and there’s no question who their starting goaltender will be for Game 1 of the first-round which will start as early as Tuesday at Edmonton’s Rogers Place.

After a quiet celebration in their team suite at Sutton Place in the NHL’s Western Conference bubble on Thursday night — with a “couple of cold ones” as Flames forward Milan Lucic said post-game — the team took a well-deserved media-free day-off on Friday. They’ll be back on the ice Saturday to prepare for the next series.

Talbot, who has 19 career playoff games under his belt, knows this grind.

“This is just one step in the big picture,” the proud father to twin toddlers Landon and Sloan, who are currently with wife Kelly back home. “We knew this was going to be a hard-fought series, and we’re going to be better off for it, playing in these qualifying rounds and we’re going to be a little more battle-tested. The guys in this room gained some valuable playoff experience in this round. After we lost Game 2, we talked about establishing our game in Game 3, and we were able to do that. (Thursday) we wanted to make sure we didn’t have a let-down. Every game was a step for us and building that belief system in our room.

“This was a huge team effort and something we need to move forward with valuable experience in all situations.”

kanderson@postmedia.com

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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