CALGARY – Just like that, Big Save Dave was reduced to Rapidly Removed Rittich.
Thirteen minutes, six shots and two bad goals into a highly-anticipated showdown with San Jose, David Rittich was given the Mike Keenan treatment by coach Bill Peters Thursday night.
Yes, both goals were uncharacteristically sizeable lapses by the typically stable sophomore. But no, he never should have been given the hook. No way, no how.
Given how razor sharp he’s been all season long to catapult the Flames to tops in the west, he deserved the chance to make amends. His teammates likely wanted the same, as they’ve previously cherished the chance to bail him out as the team did in Philadelphia a month earlier.
Not only that, the 26-year-old clearly gave the club the better chance to pull off one of their comeback miracles that have helped lift him to an other-worldly 20-5-4 record this season.
This wasn’t the way to handle the team’s most important asset this season.
That was made clear by the way he skated ever so slowly to the bench with his head down, clearly stunned, frustrated and embarrassed by his two gaffes. More humiliating was being forced to give way to backup Mike Smith in front of a Saddledome gathering that had yet to see Rittich lose a single game in regulation at home this season.
He deserved better.
As Rittich disappeared down the hallway to the dressing room nobody threw a jersey onto the ice or booed the netminder or the decision. There was a stunned silence as people wondered what this might mean moving forward. His stoic, quiet availability after the game made it clear he was clearly stung by the turn of events.
Oh sure, it was one hook, one game in an 82-game marathon. There’s a solid chance he’ll treat it like a common cold and get over it. But given the importance of doing everything possible to maintain the youngster’s confidence and mojo as the playoffs creep ever closer, one wonders if this was a moment Flames fans won’t be able to forget.
More to the point, one wonders if Rittich will be able to forget it.
“The coach pull[ed] me and after [the] second goal it was maybe [the] right thing,” said Rittich when asked if he was surprised by the hook.
“I’m going home to sleep and I want to be ready for the next practice and game and be better than tonight.”
How this affects the surprising Czech star could largely determine the fate of this hockey club.
Whether Flames fans are ready to admit it, without the magic Rittich has provided this season these Flames would be in a fight for their playoff lives. He’s that important.
With the Flames up 1-0 early against a team entering the night four points back in the divisional race, Rittich somehow allowed an Evander Kane spin-o-rama from the high slot to trickle in through his pads. He called it unlucky as he saw it last-second, it hit his blocker and rolled in off his leg.
Sixty-three seconds later he raced out of his net to play a puck near the top of the faceoff circle as big Brent Burns bore down on the situation. It was the right read to play the puck, but the wrong one to try sending it up the middle, as opposed to the safety of the boards. Burns made a great read to anticipate Rittich’s target, blocked the pass and deposited it into the empty net.
“He faked me going to [the] boards and he jumped right to the middle – it was [a] smart play by him,” said Rittich, who gets full marks for facing the media.
“I should hold it for a second and try to play it.”
Heavily influenced by the magical stickwork and playmaking abilities of his tandem-mate, Rittich has been playing with an increasing amount of fire this year outside the blue paint. Many predicted it would soon backfire, as it did at an inopportune time.
Twenty-two seconds later, Smith allowed the first shot he faced to put the Sharks up 3-1 late in the first and, just like that, the game was over in a span of 85 seconds.
“We were down two, and he didn’t look comfortable,” said Peters when asked why he ended Rittich’s night.
“Didn’t like either goal.
“Just trying to get a little spark there, and obviously that didn’t work.”
Peters said he doesn’t worry about how a move like this can affect a young goalie, but then admitted he considered putting him right back in to start the second period. They opted not to.
Peters then said he wouldn’t know his starter Saturday until Saturday. He was fibbing, as the answer is obvious. You start Rittich.
You owe him as much, not just because he’s the team’s No. 1 netminder, but because he needs to be given the chance to rebound from his shaky start and the treatment it garnered him. Again, he should have been given that chance in the second and third periods.
The Flames carried the play the rest of the game, but fell victim to a Rittich-esque effort at the other end by former Calgary Hitman Martin Jones. He was spectacular as the game’s first star, saving 36 of the 38 shots he faced by a Flames team that suddenly found a ’keeper they couldn’t beat.
Preceding the game with talk of the importance of accountability in the league, Evander Kane held the Flames accountable for an earlier boot-kicking with two goals in the 5-2 win that draws them within two points of the Flames. He has nine goals in his last five against Calgary.
Injury was added to insult late in the game when Travis Hamonic, fresh off a knee scare, raced off the ice clutching his left arm, in obvious discomfort after Tomas Hertl scored his second of the game in the final two minutes.
It was last year at this time the Flames lost Smith to injury and subsequently faded from the playoff picture when Rittich-the-rookie wasn’t able to carry the load as starter.
Rebounding brilliantly this season with stellar numbers that place him top ten in every goalie category, the question is how he’d handle inevitable adversity.
Well, we’re about to find out.
Fact is, Rittich deserved better than to have the situation play out the way it did.