By Mike Mastovich
PITTSBURGH – Arturs Irbe stood outside the Carolina Hurricanes’ locker room at Mellon Arena yesterday afternoon, a couple hours before the start of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Geographically speaking, Irbe landed about 70 miles west of Johnstown during his first trip back to Pennsylvania since his much-heralded stay with the Johnstown Chiefs.
In hockey terminology, Irbe and the Hurricanes might as well have been a million miles from the ECHL.
But don’t think that the likable goaltender has erased the Chiefs or the city from his memory.
“They are playing on the road tonight? They played Wednesday?” Irbe asked, referring to the Chiefs. “Who’s hurt? How many games are left? They are within three points of Peoria?”
In fact, Irbe reeled off almost as many questions about the Chiefs as those he fielded regarding his return to the NHL last month.
“It’s going all right. I can’t complain,” said Irbe, who is 3-1-1 with a 1.97 goals against average and .912 save percentage in five games with Carolina.
Last night, Kevin Weekes started in goal for the ‘Canes and Irbe was the backup.
That didn’t bother Irbe, who appreciates his place on Carolina’s roster after a tumultuous contract dispute that lasted about a year and ultimately led to his demotion to the ECHL Chiefs.
“It’s worked out,” Irbe said. “Human nature lets you adapt pretty quickly to things. When I was in Johnstown, I adapted. I was fine and settled into the situation. Obviously everyone in Johnstown made the transition as easy as possible.”
Irbe joined the Chiefs in Toledo a day before the regular season opened.
He treated the team, coaches and training staff to dinner at a steak house, picking up a tab reportedly more than $900.
Not a bad off-ice introduction.
At the rink, Irbe was just as popular, going 10-3-1 with a 2.13 GAA and .927 save percentage. A 12-year NHL player and two-time all-star, Irbe won his first six games, earned an ECHL Goaltender of the Week honor and eventually was named the starter for the ECHL All-Star Game.
But a wrist injury that eventually required surgery and an extensive rehabilitation period sidelined him for 11 weeks.
After returning to the lineup, he won games on Feb. 13 at Toledo and Feb. 17 at home against Peoria. Carolina recalled him after the victory over the Rivermen.
Irbe played his 300th game with the Hurricanes and stopped 18 of 19 shots in a 2-1 win at Washington in his first game back in the NHL on Feb. 25.
“Everything was smooth except it took me probably a good three or four real practices to get back in the swing of things,” Irbe said. “The ECHL is two tiers down and it’s a little bit different. But it wasn’t that rough.”
But Irbe said it doesn’t really feel as if he spent more than half a season out of the NHL.
“I’m back to what I had been doing the previous 12 years,” said Irbe, who has a 216-235-79 record and 33 shutouts in 563 NHL games. “The adjustment didn’t really need to be made. I don’t feel like I have been missing. It was a quick adjustment.”
It also was an adjustment Irbe once feared he might not have to make this season.
In 2002-03, Irbe and the Hurricanes went head-to-head after Weekes took over the starting job.
Irbe wanted a trade. The Hurricanes unsuccessfully attempted to deal him.
Carolina later waived him, but Irbe went unclaimed.
His salary, which included $2.7 million this season and another $2.5 next year, made Irbe a tough sell.
Irbe briefly played in the AHL late last season. At this season’s outset, he was on the outs in the Hurricanes organization and General Manager Jim Rutherford made no secret of that fact.
To buy out Irbe prior to this season, Carolina would have had to pay him $3.467 million. Instead, the Hurricanes offered $1.8 million, and Irbe declined.
Rather than send the goalie to the AHL, Rutherford contacted Chiefs majority owner Neil Smith about the possibility of placing Irbe in Johnstown.
Carolina coach Peter Laviolette, the former Wheeling Nailers coach, took over for fired coach Paul Maurice on Dec. 15.
Eventually, Laviolette asked about the possibility of bringing Irbe back into the NHL mix.
Since his call-up, Irbe has put the past differences with the organization out of mind. So has Laviolette.
“He said, ‘Basically, you have a clean slate with me and I don’t care about your past,’ ” Irbe said of his coach. “He said that in a good way. ‘You just have to do things the way you can. If you can deliver, that’s all I’m asking you. Nothing else.’ “
Irbe has made two appearances in Carolina’s past six games.
“I sat the first week back,” Irbe said. “I have played one third or 40 percent of the games. Kevin gets a couple and I get one. That’s fine. The team keeps getting points. That’s all you can ask for.”
When asked if he still glances at the ECHL standings, Irbe smiled.
“I check on the Chiefs,” he said. “I have kept in touch with (coach Toby O’Brien) every week. It’s great to see the team is doing well. The foundation is right and the playoffs are right around the corner. Good luck to everybody there. That’s all I can say right now.”