Punctuating Matthew Tkachuk’s overtime heroics late last week was a half-rink dash by David Rittich that ended with an emotional embrace at centre ice.
"That was maybe a little over my speed limit, that sprint," chuckled the exuberant Flames netminder, who nearly tackled Tkachuk in celebration.
"I was pretty pumped."
Pumped is a good way to describe how the organization is feeling about Rittich’s start to the season.
Unsure how he’d handle being the alpha dog in a duo for the first time as an NHLer, the undrafted 27-year-old has responded in spectacular fashion. Leading the league in starts (16), ice time (961 minutes), saves (468) and wins (9), Rittich has already answered plenty of questions the doubters had about his abilities to shoulder the load.
Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson, who played alongside Rittich in the AHL as well, said he isn’t the least bit surprised.
"I never worried about him one bit," he said of the man who signed a two-year extension in the summer for $2.75 million annually.
"When I saw he signed his deal I knew it was kind of a steal."
He’s since stolen several wins, the hearts of Calgary’s fan base and the respect of his coaches.
However, this wasn’t the plan.
The Flames now find themselves on the horns of a goaltending dilemma because of his early-season success. Internally, team brass have been struggling with balancing load management and riding the hot hand.
As captain Mark Giordano points out, it has been hard not to continue playing Rittich as often as they have, as he has done his part to give his team a chance to win every game he’s played.
While it’s a nice problem to have, the organization does indeed see it as a quandary. They want to ensure Rittich isn’t burned out early, as they’ll certainly need him down the stretch when he’s faded the last two years.
In this city, it’s all about building for playoff success.
They also want to ensure Cam Talbot can get more starts in an effort to get into the flow of the season. He’s 1-3 so far, but will be counted on for a significant win count if the 10-7-3 Flames are to make the playoffs again.
They club entered the season hoping split duties between the two would see Rittich play no more than 50 or 55 games. Rittich has started 16 of the Flames 20 games so far, putting him on pace for 65 games.
"I don’t think we expected him to play this much," admitted Flames goalie coach Jordan Sigalet.
"We’re glad he’s played as well as he has. But at the same time you want to keep both guys going and get Talbs in a rhythm – it was 13 days between his two Washington games.
"You don’t want to worry about (Rittich) getting tired now – you’re worried about late in the season. We definitely have got to manage it a little better."
Last week, for example, the coaches intended to start Talbot either against New Jersey on Thursday or Saturday against the defending Stanley Cup champions. But given how well Rittich played in a 4-3 OT win Tuesday against Arizona, they elected to stay with the hot hand for both.
Just the way Rittich wants it.
"He’s stubborn because you talk to him and he says he feels great and he wants to be in the net all the time," said Sigalet, who admits it has been hard to justify taking him out all season, other than for back-to-back games.
"Smitty (Mike Smith) was like that too. They’re competitive guys who want to be in there, but you have to think long term, not just short term."
They’ve worked hard to try managing his rest on off-days and are also keenly aware of how much better his conditioning is by virtue of his amped-up summer training regimen. His now-famous reduction in the number of Coca-Colas he consumes weekly has also paid off.
Ask Rittich and he sees no problem with the arrangement and is oblivious to the coaches’ conundrum.
"That’s what I wanted in the summer," said the Czech netminder of his intense workload.
"That’s why I work hard. I glad I’m able. I got the coach believe in me and the players believe in me too so that’s good. I’m pretty happy but I know I can be better."
Sure, his .914 save percentage and 2.74 goals-against average aren’t quite all-star material. But given the wild inconsistencies of the team in front of him that have marked the first quarter of the season, there’s no denying he’s the team’s MVP so far.
"I’m just looking for W’s – that’s most important for me," said Rittich when asked about his stats. "It’s team sport, right? Who cares about your numbers and whatever goals against?"
His competitiveness is not only a big part of his success, but it is what has helped make Big Save Dave so popular with teammates and fans.
Often seen kissing helpful goalposts and joking with teammates during stoppages, he’s also lashed out a few opponents he feels have taken liberties.
"If he’s going to slash me, I’m going to give him one quick one," he said of a recent shove. "I’m just trying protect myself a little bit."
He and Sigalet have spent plenty of time over the last three years discussing the importance of keeping emotions in check.
"He’s controlled that emotion a lot more and I think that’s made a big difference too," said Sigalet. "You don’t want to take that away from him. You want to manage it a little bit. He’s competitive and you like that. The last couple years he’d get a little too high after wins and too low after losses. He’s found ways to put games behind him, and it’s all part of him maturing."
No one has a problem with his post-game celebrations, no matter what speed he performs them at.
"It’s great to see that – he’s a guy who loves to win and hates to lose," said Sigalet, whose club will undoubtedly start Rittich Wednesday and they’re in a stretch with just one game in six days.
"Those are the guys you win with."