It’s the type of story that used to play out in Calgary with regularity.
Despite being more than doubled in shots, the Flames found a way to squeeze out a win Wednesday over the Avalanche. The man responsible for the latest two-point heist was David Rittich.
Fifteen years earlier, the culprit’s name was Miikka Kiprusoff.
Take a close look at what the two did to open their Flames careers in Calgary and it’s striking how similar the shocking, early success of both quirky European netminders has been.
Forty-eight games into Rittich’s ascent to the bigs, the 26-year-old Czech project has a 24-10-6 record as a Flame, sporting a 2.63 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
In the same number of games, albeit in a lower-scoring era, a 27-year-old Kiprusoff was 28-15-4-1, with a 1.92 goals-against average and .926 save rate, taking his teammates, the city and the league by storm.
Acquired mid-November 2003 (for a second-round pick that turned into Marc-Eduoard Vlasic) Kiprusoff filled in for the injured Roman Turek by posting a modern NHL record with a 1.70 goals-against average.
He was the catalyst in turning around a struggling franchise that ended an eight-year playoff drought by going to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final that year.
Not bad for a third-string goalie out of San Jose no one knew anything about.
Few knew much about Rittich either when he was signed four years ago out of the Czech league. Even upon arrival as an AHLer three years ago, there was little expected from the man who spoke no English.
In short order, the man now known as Big Save Dave has taken over Mike Smith’s starting job and is at the forefront of another Flames turning point for the conference-leading team.
Assistant coach Martin Gelinas has been with the Flames to see both men take the franchise by storm and said the biggest similarity is the fact neither team could possibly have had the success they’ve had without these goalies.
“No chance — any team in the NHL will tell you if you don’t have goaltending, you can’t win,” said Gelinas, who was a Flames winger when Darryl Sutter brought in Kiprusoff.
“We didn’t expect anything from Kipper — he just kind of came and won a game, and then another one, and got on a roll and we kept wondering if it would end. It never ended with Kipper.
“A little bit like Ritter — nobody was expecting much. He just came and played well, making some key saves at key times and won us some games by himself. (On Wednesday) we won the game because of Ritter, and Kipper did that back then.”
None of this is to suggest Rittich is destined to play eight more years as the Flames starter, win a Vezina, guide them to a Cup Final and make 10s of millions by eclipsing Kiprusoff’s franchise marks for wins, goals-against average and save percentage.
Even if he does, there’s definitely no chance he could duplicate the way in which Kiprusoff conducted himself on or off the ice.
While the tobacco-chewing, soft-spoken Kiprusoff made himself scarce to the media, Rittich is a jovial, effervescent prankster who hangs around the dressing room in search of banter and laughs.
“I do see similarities with the two but their personalities are different,” said assistant GM Craig Conroy, who has also seen both transformational performances.
“Ritter has fun and brings confidence, while Kipper was a much quieter guy and nothing bothered him. Like Grant Fuhr, ho-hum. Right now, hey, everything is going great for Ritter, so we’ll see when adversity comes and how he handles it. Hopefully he continues it with the same attitude he has now because goaltending is a tough position mentally.
“Ritter is a very laid-back guy. On the ice he’s emotional and has fun and I think the guys enjoy it. In the old school it’s, ‘Don’t show any emotion and be stoic and calm.’ But being animated is what makes Ritter Ritter. And the guys appreciate that.”
While Kiprusoff’s speech upon induction to the Finnish hockey hall of fame was 13 words, Rittich can often be seen kissing his goalposts, celebrating goals, lashing out at crease crashers and beaming between whistles.
Despite wonderfully broken English, he delights in interviews.
Kiprusoff didn’t even show up to collect his Vezina in 2006.
Rittich wouldn’t dare miss his post-game hugs with Matthew Tkachuk.
Yet, both gave early stabilization to a position the franchise has long struggled in.
“I have to admit when we brought in Kipper we didn’t know who he was or what to expect but from the first practice I remember Jarome (Iginla) and I talking, saying, ‘Holy cow, this guy is pretty good,’” said Conroy.
“Like Ritter the other night, he made some saves you wouldn’t expect, it snowballed from there and we had found a goalie.”
Following a rookie season in which he was stellar as Smith’s backup but struggled as a starter, Rittich has gone 16-4-3 this year to become the team’s go-to guy.
Skeptics wonder if he’ll soon crumble again under the pressure of being a starter, and the hockey world wonders if the conference-leading Flames can really be dangerous in the post-season with Rittich as The Man.
“Rittich is not as athletic or flexible as Kipper, but he’s bigger and more technical than Kipper,” said David Marcoux, the Flames goalie coach when Kiprusoff arrived, who now runs a goalie school in Calgary. “They’re definitely ultra-competitive, although not in the same way. Kipper would never get pissed off when guys drove him and give a blocker shot like Rittich. It doesn’t seem to get him off his game, he’s just a fiery guy.
“Both embraced the opportunity they’re given. There’s a window now for Rittich just like there was for Kipper when Turek was injured and (Jamie) McLennan was here.”
Can Rittich keep this up?
“I think he learned a lot from being a number one last year,” said Marcoux.
“Some guys only get one chance. He’s getting his second and the stars are kind of aligning this time and I think the sky is the limit.”