CALGARY – It was the type of goal that would have broken Twitter had Mike Smith surrendered it.
Early in the third period of a 4-1 game the Maple Leafs had well in hand, Tyler Ennis wheeled around from the half wall and sent a harmless shot towards the net that beat David Rittich along the ice. The Dome Groan typically reserved for Smith was punctuated by hundreds of blue and white hat trick tuques for Ennis, serving only to add to the embarrassment of it all.
Two nights earlier, Calgary fans jeered their own net-minder after Smith was caught out of his net for one, and beaten far too cleanly on another. Despite the fact the veteran had just paced Calgary to its longest winning streak of the season (seven games) with a stellar 5-0 record, Smith’s only stumble of late prompted Bronx cheers late in the evening.
On Monday night it was Rittich’s turn.
For the second game in succession, a segment of spectators turned on their own. Sure, the fifth goal was irrelevant in a game far out of reach, but it was the next weak shot from a similar locale that prompted a smattering of fans to jeer The People’s Choice. Whether it came from Leafs or Flames fans, a round of mock cheers for Rittich made it painfully obvious: clearly, this is an issue.
Only a fool would blame Rittich for the 6-2 loss as the focus should be squarely on just how stellar Freddie Andersen’s 35-save performance was, especially early. Rittich made 26 stops but wasn’t nearly good enough to keep his club in it early as the Leafs capitalized on several fortuitous bounces to jump out to an early 3-0 lead.
In a building that routinely hears chants of “Rit-tich, Rit-tich,” one third of those in the pews bellowed, “Fred-die, Fred-die.” He out-dueled Rittich on one of the larger stages the Flames have found themselves on this season.
Rittich’s teammates defended him, as they would, suggesting the series of unfortunate bounces and breaks had more to do with their fate than shaky goaltending.
“It was one of those nights when things could go wrong, they did go wrong, and that was across the board for everybody,” said Flames coach Bill Peters when asked about Rittich’s night.
“It was kind of weird game for me. I had probably the worst luck in this game,” added a downtrodden Rittich. “I was a little bit unlucky with those bounces.”
In a town clamouring for Smith to be benched in favour of the second-year Czech goalie, you can bet the Toronto media who witnessed it all were further convinced the biggest question mark in Calgary is between the pipes.
Despite Calgary’s lofty perch atop the west, net-minding has long been the knock from afar when observers are asked about the Flames’ chances. It’s not necessarily accurate or fair, but no matter. The loss marks the first time since mid-November that the Flames have lost back-to-back games in regulation.
Prior to that, the Flames had won seven in a row, including six straight while surrendering two goals or less. Goaltending wasn’t an issue in those. Yet, questions abound.
Are Rittich’s 60 games in the NHL enough for him to enter his very first playoffs with enough experience to withstand the pressure, grind, ups and downs of spring hockey? Does Smith’s age, his .895 save percentage or his penchant for coughing up bad goals when his confidence wanes preclude him from returning to the all-star form he had early last season?
It’s been made patently clear the bulk of Flames fans aren’t capable of affording 36-year-old Smith a second chance following his late-season collapse a year ago, followed by his early struggles. The sad reality, despite his valiant fight to regain his form, is he’ll never win over these fans.
His recent string of brilliance was cast aside by fans with Saturday’s stumble, prompting irrational jeers from a fan base terrified goaltending will be its undoing as it has the bulk of the franchise’s history. Part of why he can’t win for losing revolves around the penchant in town to give Rittich the ball to run with.
On Tuesday the Flames leave for Vegas where they’ll almost certainly face another goalie capable of single-handedly swiping wins, Marc-Andre Fleury – a lad the Flames may very well have to go through this spring.
The attention to detail the Flames fell short of on Monday will need to improve if their starting goalie has any chance of success. Who will get that start is once again a guessing game. Fact is, the duo has been very good this season – you don’t ascend to the top of a conference otherwise.
But don’t try telling the locals – they’re too busy jeering their own.