CALGARY — Standing in front of the Flames media wall for a prolonged discussion on his three-point night, Johnny Gaudreau was suddenly the recipient of a pretty good shove.
The man administering the jolt, David Rittich, had just delivered his second career NHL shutout and playfully suggested it was his turn to take the spotlight.
Indeed it was.
Posting a 34-save goose egg to give the Flames a 3-0 win over Vancouver in their season opener, Rittich officially started his quest to prove a summer of sacrifice would pay off as the team’s new go-to guy.
A playful sort whose dedication to his craft included cutting down his Coca Cola intake, Rittich chuckled when asked whose idea it was to work out four hours a day.
“It wasn’t my idea,” laughed the 27-year-old Czech whose broken English endears him to teammates and fans alike.
“It was for conditioning to be strong, and mentally strong. You’re going to be tired in a game but you keep battling. It’s for now. I’m guarantee it’s going to be all year.”
The two biggest questions facing the Calgary Flames this season revolve around playoff redemption and goaltending.
The first can’t be addressed for a while. Rittich has been working on the second with a dedication that saw him dominate in the preseason and start the season well.
His spectacular 12-save performance in the first period of Thursday’s season-opening loss in Denver gave the Flames a fighting chance they didn’t deserve.
In Saturday’s Dome-lifter he was once again sharp early, steering aside dangerous forays with ease, controlling rebounds and always looking in control.
The man who has been known to kiss goalposts following iron-clangers saw a Jake Virtanen shot ring off the cross-bar midway through an evening in which the Flames got up 2-0 early in the second, thanks to Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan.
Two dangerous one-timers by Calder winner Elias Petterssen were also fortuitously diffused, once with a broken twig and another with a rocket sent wide.
Perhaps the biggest save came early in the third when he snared a Brock Boeser bomb with his glove while his club killed a two-man disadvantage.
Travis Hamonic rained endless praise on his netminder after the game, but it was he too who deserved plenty of love after a dangerous blocked shot hit him in the knee, hobbling him for the duration of the shift.
It was the type of dedication the team exhibited throughout the night, especially in the third when the bulk of an astounding 19 blocked shots on the night helped kill three consecutive penalties that threatened to ruin his shutout and change the game’s momentum.
“You can see guys blocking shots and jumping head first — it’s a great thing from them,” said the man who has promised to limit his soft drinks to game days alone.
“(Hamonic) is always saying to me he has more saves than me in a game. It’s probably true. It’s fantastic to be behind him because he’s going to try to block shots and help you and he’s a good guy. I’m glad I got those D-men in front of me.”
Including Noah Hanifin.
“I told Hani if he can grab (the puck at the and of the game) for me and he did it,” said Rittich, before breaking into a grin that often means he’s about to crack wise.
“He’s a nice guy… sometimes.”
Rittich’s 26 saves were one of the lone bright spots in their 10th-straight season-opening loss, which included six power play gifts from the Flames to the Avs. Their promise to clean that up rang hollow Saturday as the Flames gave the Canucks five power plays, making Rittich’s job even harder.
Earlier in the night, Don Cherry wondered aloud how the Flames could let Mike Smith go, given his legendary stickhandling. The answer revolves largely around the Flames’ desire to give the 27-year-old Rittich a run at being the alpha dog, grabbing the reins on the No. 1 job that’s now clearly his to lose.
Given his start there’s a good chance we won’t see Cam Talbot until Game 6, which comes in San Jose next Sunday, one night after visiting Vegas.
Rittich figured a big part of the win came courtesy of Lindholm’s early conversion of a Gaudreau interception of a Tyler Myers clearing pass.
Monahan converted a slick centering pass from Gaudreau one minute into the second before No. 13 capped his night with an empty-netter.
Gaudreau, who had 99 points last year, now has five points in his first two games.
The Flames host Los Angeles Tuesday, which should be a whole lot more interesting after Matthew Tkachuk served up a touch more disrespect to Drew Doughty in his post-game After Hours appearance.