TORONTO – Following an effort that may very well have been his finest as an NHL goalie, David Rittich was unable to pinpoint the biggest of his 35 saves.
“I don’t know – ask my groin,” deadpanned the Calgary Flames netminder following his team’s 2-1 shootout win over the Leafs.
It was in reference to several sprawling stops requiring his body to contort in various ways to stop the NHL’s most potent offence.
“It was a hard game – I’m kind of tired right now,” he smiled.
“Can’t wait to get to the airplane.”
Mark Giordano was convinced a stop following a seam pass in the first period was key to preventing early Leafs momentum.
Flames goal scorer Derek Ryan pegged a spectacular blocker save on Auston Matthews late in the third as the pinnacle of No. 33’s performance.
“I thought one on (Andreas) Johnsson in the second period was good and obviously the one in overtime (stoning Kasperi Kapanen) was awesome,” voted shootout hero Matthew Tkachuk.
“I thought tonight he really showed what type of goalie he’s capable of being on a big stage.”
In a year in which Big Save Dave has parked himself amongst league stat leaders with a consistency that earned him an all-star nod, the idea was that next week in St. Louis’ 3-on-3 showcase would be his chance to really shine.
It’s there he’ll get a chance to show the hockey world what people in Calgary have delighted in the last few seasons – that the undrafted 27-year-old Czech star has a personality to match his skillset.
Apparently he just couldn’t wait that long.
Big Stage Dave indeed.
“Five years ago, I was in the Czech League – I was never thinking about NHL,” he marvelled Thursday morning, one day after learned he’d been named Darcy Kuemper’s replacement in the All-Star Game.
“And here we go, five years later and I have an opportunity to be in the All-Star Game with the best players in the world? It’s great news for me. When I was younger, I was watching those games and I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, that’s super nice.’ You could see the players who were walking on the red carpet and having a lot of fun. And now I can be part of it. It’s awesome.”
It comes at a cost of $14,000, which is what he and his wife had paid up front for a Mexican getaway that won’t come to pass now.
A small price to pay for one of the game’s great feel-good stories – a tale that had another chapter added Thursday with a win that had Leaf patrons shaking their head after he stopped Mitch Marner’s final shootout attempt.
In the midst of a slight funk that saw him lose three of his previous four outings, Rittich showed up in the centre of the hockey world to stymie some of the game’s biggest studs with an endless stream of highlight-reel saves.
Nine of them came on 34-goal scorer Matthews, whose club was systematically shut down by a Flames club with the full intent to avoid getting into a track meet with a team averaging over four goals a game under Sheldon Keefe.
It was a tremendous bounce back for a team that came out flat in Montreal three nights earlier for its only loss in their last seven outings.
Clinging to Ryan’s second-period deflection past an equally-game Frederik Andersen, the Flames finally surrendered a goal when William Nylander deftly redirected a John Tavares centering pass on the power play with 12 minutes left.
Weathering the Leafs’ final push until overtime, it was the Flames who held the edge 3-on-3 to no avail.
Rittich moved to a perfect 5-0 on shootouts this year by stopping Jason Spezza, Matthews and Marner, opening the door for Tkachuk’s shot under Andersen to prolong his week in the spotlight.
As the polarizing power forward collected the puck at centre ice, he was booed by some in Scotiabank Arena who are well aware of the Battle of Alberta controversy that has followed the Flames winger this week.
“I’m sure he’ll get booed more in Edmonton than he did here,” chuckled Ryan.
“I think he just thrives in the moment. He loves to be in the spotlight and the high-pressure situation.”
The last team to keep the Leafs to under three goals was the Flames in December when Calgary stormed back in the third to win 4-2.
“I thought we did a good job of eliminating a really high-powered offence,” said Tkachuk, whose club faces his brother’s Senators in Ottawa Saturday.
“They got some good looks but that’s where Ritter was there – I thought he was unbelievable. You want to reward him and do everything in your power to win the game for him. He was out best player tonight, easily. We can play with anybody. We’ve got a pretty good team in there.”
Backed by a pretty solid – and colourful – netminder.