CALGARY – The Calgary Flames are looking for a starting goaltender.
No, not via the trade market. From within. The question is which one will start in the playoffs.
Mike Smith’s early struggles, combined with David Rittich’s steady brilliance, have prompted many to conclude the Flames are poised to start the playoffs with the latter.
Not necessarily so, says coach Bill Peters, much to the chagrin of a fan base convinced Rittich is the club’s next Miikka Kiprusoff.
Smith is coming off solid, back-to-back efforts in Florida and Pittsburgh that were chiefly responsible for snapping the club’s recent funk, snagging three of four points.
In those games the lanky veteran exhibited the type of aggressiveness and swagger that made him an NHL all-star last year.
Those showings are part of an ongoing rehabilitation of sorts for the 36-year-old who has openly discussed his fight to regain his confidence and form. Of late he’s quashed his early trend of giving up a softie almost nightly and become a steady alternative to the second-year Czech star.
Flames fans had written Smith off early this season when his late-season struggles last year carried into the fall, culminating with a horrific gaffe at home Nov. 15 against Montreal that cost the Flames the game.
It opened the door for Rittich to play saviour, going on a strong run to emerge as one of the league’s most prolific netminders.
However, Smith’s renowned work ethic and determination have led to a revival that has likely ended any thoughts GM Brad Treliving may have had about upgrading his tandem by the trade deadline. Further, he may be able to change the Flames’ goalie narrative moving forward.
Many would be shocked to learn Smith has quietly posted better numbers than Rittich the last three months.
Yes, take the opening two months out of the equation and Smith has actually had a better goals-against average (2.78 vs. 3.13) and save percentage (.903 vs. .896) since late November. He even has more wins in that stretch, posting a 10-4-1 record compared to Rittich’s 9-1-3 mark.
Since Jan. 1 their numbers are almost identical, aside from wins and losses (Smith is at 4-3-1 while Rittich is at 7-1-2). In either case, it’s evident both have been a big part of the team’s meteoric rise to tops in the west. Yet, ask anyone outside Calgary whether they think the Flames are a legitimate Cup contender and most will point first at their questions in net.
Is Smith capable of returning to all-star form when it matters most?
Is Rittich capable of handling the pressure when it’s ratcheted up even higher?
Peters said he’s far from made up his mind on who will get the chance to prove naysayers wrong in April.
"We’ve got lots of hockey left – lots of things are going to happen over the next (23) games," said the coach."We have a plan in place and we had a plan in place from the start of the year and we followed it as close as we could for the most part."
Okay, truthfully though, did the first-half plan go anywhere near the way he expected?
"No, it didn’t," he said with a smile, clearly not expecting he would have pressed Rittich into duty so often.
"There’s ‘x’ amount of minutes we want to make sure each guy gets and they’re close to playing similar minutes. We’re going to need everybody – we keep saying that.
"With the amount of travel we’re doing and back-to-backs you need two."
Would he go into the playoffs with the 1a/1b strategy he’s employed for months?
"No, not then," said Peters.
So, the audition continues, despite the assumption from a fan base that has a hard time believing the reality that their favourite son – Rittich – won’t necessarily be that guy.
"It has been kind of an up and down year and it’s that time of year everyone wants to amp up their game and I’m no different," said Smith following his stellar 34-save win in Pittsburgh Saturday.
"I’m determined to get back to the form I’m capable of and get this team into the playoffs and make a good run. What’s happened in the past now is done and over with – you can’t take that back.
"I’ve been battling hard in practice and it’s starting to pay off in games.
"It feels nice to play. It has been a while since I got back-to-back games, so it’s nice to get a rhythm going and feel good about where my game is at."
He wasn’t able to say that earlier this season when it looked at times like his career might be careening to an end.
"I think it has been quite a while now," said Smith when asked how long he’s been happy with his game.
"I think I won 9 of 11 (ending Jan. 18) and then it seemed like I wasn’t playing very much after that, so it was tough to get into games and get in a rhythm."
He’s started just six of the team’s last 16 games, going 3-2-1.
"Since the all-star game I thought I played really well in Washington and my next game I came in against San Jose and thought I played well.
"My game feels like it’s there – it’s just about getting the opportunity and taking advantage of it. The last couple games I’ve done that. Hopefully I can keep it going."
For the first time this season Rittich (20-5-5) has faltered slightly of late, winning just one of his four starts since the break. He’ll have to wait until after Monday afternoon in Calgary when Arizona comes calling, as Smith will be the starter once more for that match up.
While Rittich will be given equal opportunity down the stretch to return to form, Smith (15-11-2) hasn’t lost faith in his ability to be the playoff starter.
"It’s such a long season that you can’t say one way or the other at this point in the season," he said of the eventual playoff starter.
"You have two guys I think are capable of playing games – you want to be in the net and that competition makes each of us better.
"I’m going to do everything I can to be the guy and be an important part of this team moving forward. I’ve played in the playoffs before and would like to do it again.
There’s nothing like playing the playoffs – it’s a different ball game. I’m excited about the opportunity of being on a team that’s going to make it and being a big part of that."