- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

The scene goes back 13 years to Riga, Latvia, a small city that appeared to come out of medieval times with tiny streets curling through the business section, vendors peddling produce out of sidewalk carts a clean, pretty town on the far western reaches of the Soviet Union.

Soviet soldiers were not parading around with shouldered AK-47s as they might have been in a Hollywood version, but the locals knew whom to be wary of. Citizens talking to foreign visitors would change the topic of conversation in mid-word from the recent Chernobyl disaster to basketball if a stranger approached.

The city's cozy hockey rink, where Dynamo Riga, the local entrant in the Russian Elite League, played home games, was nicely decorated for the occasion, an exhibition game by the touring Washington Capitals of the NHL. The bastardized version of the nation's flag, doctored to add the Communist touch, was visible everywhere.

Arturs Irbe, now known as Archie after 11 years in the NHL, was going up against rookie Olie Kolzig that night. It was a Mutt and Jeff act if there ever was one Irbe stood 5-foot-8, 170 pounds; Kolzig was 6-3, 225, and what transpired was an incredibly good hockey game, won by the Caps 2-1 on Mike Ridley's goal in overtime. The Latvians cheered, waved their real flag and marched out of the building as if they had won.

Now Ridley has retired, Kolzig is still a Cap and Irbe is playing for his fourth NHL team, Carolina. He is one victory away from backstopping the Hurricanes into the Stanley Cup finals, a feat that to some is almost as remarkable as the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Irbe, 35, is a goaltender who conjures up every vision one has of a man who willingly puts body in front of vulcanized rubber pucks moving at 100 mph. Because of his heritage, he speaks broken English, which only adds to his mystique. He looks like Betsy Ross when he isn't starting, sitting on the bench with needle and thread repairing his own gear. He wears the kind of birdcage mask that nobody else wears any more and can't be replaced because nobody makes them.

Irbe's career seemed to be soaring at the end of the 1993-94 season, when he engineered the playoff upset of the '90s, leading San Jose over Detroit (a series during which he cleared a puck into his own net at one point). During the offseason, he was attacked and seriously injured by his own dog; a year later he was 4-12-4 with a goals-against of 4.59, and it seemed like Riga was calling.

The Sharks dropped him, then Dallas, then Vancouver (where he played for and survived Mike Keenan, hockey's Captain Hook). The Caps courted him as a backup, but he wanted to start. Fortunately. the Hurricanes offered him a chance.

Irbe's unorthodox style, which can't be cataloged, didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence. He had to beat out Trevor Kidd for starters, and even Tom Barrasso was brought in. Then, on March 5, Carolina picked up Kevin Weekes. The job was Irbe's to keep minute by minute.

Against New Jersey, Irbe had two bad games, and Weekes took over. Weekes started four in a row, winning two by shutout, had a bad period, and Irbe was back. This time he hasn't been replaced, and on Thursday night recorded his first playoff shutout, beating Toronto 3-0. Irbe is now 8-3 this playoff season with a GAA of 1.51 and a saves percentage of .943.

And if he has a tough night, Weekes is 3-2 with a GAA of 1.62 and a saves percentage of .939. That is the part that opponents dread a backup whose stats are just about as good as the starter's.

Irbe has so much experience starting games, getting hooked, going back in, etc., that it doesn't faze him. He knows that the whole business is cylindrical, to use one of Keenan's favorite words.

"Even when I was called a bum, I used it as a positive. So thanks, Mike Keenan, if you're watching," Irbe said.

Keenan has nothing else to do right now, Archie, except watch you.


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