Leafs can’t solve Flames’ Rittich again, but encouraged by defence

David Rittich stopped 35 shots in regulation and overtime and stonewalled the Maple Leafs in the shootout for a 2-1 Flames win.

TORONTO — They’ve been averaging more than four goals per game, these Toronto Maple Leafs, and they had the kind of chances Thursday needed to score four more.

That only one puck got past Calgary’s David Rittich basically summed up the night.

He’s the only goalie in the entire NHL to keep Toronto below three goals in a game since Dec. 7, and now he’s done it twice during this stretch where offence has started to rain from the sky under coach Sheldon Keefe.

So while a 2-1 shootout loss to the Flames was a setback, it was hardly the kind of result that drew long faces in the losing dressing room. The atmosphere there basically amounted to one big shrug emoji after Rittich came across his crease laterally to rob Kasperi Kapanen in overtime and deny Auston Matthews in the dying minutes of regulation.

“Obviously, we want to score as many goals as we can and we want to create opportunities. We have a lot of depth and everyone can contribute that way, but these games happen,” said captain John Tavares.

“I thought we generated a number of chances that, on another night, are going to go in for us,” added Keefe. “Their goaltender was very good. Some of the luck didn’t go our way.”

If anything, this was 65-plus minutes that included more steps forward than back.

The Leafs have been bleeding goals against of late and saw a solid Frederik Andersen stop 31 shots. That came at least in part because they did a better job of protecting the house during the periods where Calgary brought a push.

They also did well to grab one point on a night where it looked like “Big Save Dave” might become “Every Save Dave.”

The tying goal came off the stick of William Nylander — he’s now got 10 to show for his last 13 games, and 21 overall — after he established position at the top of the crease during a third-period power play.

That left his stick in prime position to tip home a pass from Tavares.

“I think we were creating a lot of chances,” said Nylander. “Their goalie stood on his head, and when that happens you’ve got to be happy with the way we played and take that away from this game.”

Keefe once again turned his big horses loose, leaning heavily on Tavares (26:23), Mitch Marner (25:43) and Matthews (24:11) with the bye week looming beyond Saturday’s visit here by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Each of those star forwards actually saw more ice time than any of the Leafs’ defencemen.

Despite all of the high-octane talent, it was a defensive chess match. Toronto had a territorial advantage and directed 36 shots at Rittich, but it didn’t generate quite as much from the high-danger areas as usual.

“They’re a good team at keeping you on the perimeter,” said Matthews, who finished with nine shots on goal and 12 attempts. “In the first period, we were shooting, but didn’t really have any ‘Grade-A’ chances and then I think in the third period it kind of opened up a bit for us and we were getting ‘Grade-A’ looks and getting kind of inside more and challenging the slot.”

However, they were encouraged about the way they defended in front of Andersen.

“We obviously have to do a better job eliminating opportunities and goals against and helping out our goaltending,” said Tavares. “I think from a defensive standpoint and the way we competed without the puck, we got above it, did good things in our own end, protected from the inside-out and really didn’t give up too many second and third opportunities.”

Ultimately, this was a largely forgettable stop on the long journey through an 82-game season.

Rittich had a night to remember and the noticeably strong number of Flames fans went home happy after their team’s only visit to Scotiabank Arena. There was only a small whiff of disappointment from a Toronto side that couldn’t convert on any of its three shootout attempts in the tiebreaker.

The Leafs simply tipped their caps to Rittich, who was added to the Pacific Division All-Stars on Wednesday.

“I thought he was reading the play extremely well,” said Tavares. “He made a couple really good (saves on) cross-crease, cross-ice passes. Just was tracking the puck, he was really square and on a lot of good looks, too, that he made look easy.

“He wasn’t making it easy for us to beat him tonight.”

Sometimes it happens.

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