Led by David Rittich’s stellar road play, Flames remain in playoff race

Flames captain Mark Giordano says he’s feeling great and ready to go against the Predators, and since he hasn’t missed too much time, doesn’t expect to be that rusty.

NASHVILLE – It’s one thing to ask Geoff Ward how he’s gone about picking his starting netminder all season long.

It’s quite another for him to opine on why one of them is on a remarkable run that has seen him dominate on the road, yet struggle at home.

“Are you asking me to get inside a goalie’s head?” said the Calgary Flames interim coach, bursting into laughter at the impossibility of the task. “Are you really asking me that question? I’ve got absolutely nothing. I don’t know if I want to peak inside that one. That’s a difficult question.”

No team in the NHL has been hotter on the road the last two months than the Flames, going 15-4-1 since Nov. 23.

It has kept them in a playoff race they’d otherwise have faded from.

The man chiefly responsible for that run is David Rittich, who is 12-3-1 with a 2.39 GAA and .924 SV% in his last 16 road starts.

Not surprisingly, he’ll get his third consecutive start on this five-game road trip on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena against the Nashville Predators.

“He’s a guy that enjoys spending time around his team – it helps him get prepared,” said Ward, taking a stab at the Rittich road riddle. “When we’re on the road, obviously he’s around the guys a lot more, and maybe that has something to do with it.

“For us it’s good that we’re seeing him round back into his old form. He’ll get the start in here tonight and hopefully we’ll see the same game we saw from him in Boston.”

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Rittich was stellar throughout the Flames’ 5-2 upset over the Boston Bruins Tuesday, making 26 saves in the league’s toughest building to play in this season.

Nashville generally isn’t any easier to play in, although the Flames have won eight of their last nine here, across the street from Tootsies Orchid Lounge.

“It’s weird – our team is sort of in that boat right now too,” said Mark Giordano of Rittich’s recent road success and Dome struggles.

“If you go back to the start of the season I think it was flip-flopped – I think we were good at home and not so good on the road. Over the course of a long season you’re going to go through those. In saying that, we want to continue to have our success on the road obviously, but we know with the home games coming up we have to turn that around, and turn it around quick.”

The Flames finish their road trip this weekend with back-to-back games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, before ending the season with 11 of their final 15 games at home where they’ve only won one of their last seven.

“You’re not going to play 60 unbelievable games – it’s part of hockey,” shrugged Rittich, when asked about his sagging play of late at home.

“You’ve got to go through it, you’ve got to battle. You’ve got to work for the team.”

Following a stellar start to the season when he confirmed he’s capable of being an everyday NHL starter, Rittich showed signs of the second-half struggle he’s endured now in all three of his NHL campaigns.

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He says he continues to use his experience to better deal with the inevitable setbacks athletes face.

“You have to look year after year — my first year I played a couple games and I learned from it,” said the 27-year-old Czech, whose 45 games this season matches his career-high, set last year.

“Last year I played even more and learned from it. I think I’ve got more experience to handle from that stuff. You don’t want it to go like this — you want to hold the line.

“But sometimes it’s hard. You’re going through a lot of stuff during the year. You get couple guys hurt and you play with different defencemen. Different things you’re going to feel. I’m super comfortable right now with our team and they’re playing really good.”

One game after injecting trade deadline acquisitions Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson into the lineup, the club is expecting get a big boost with Giordano returning from a hamstring injury that has caused the captain to miss ten games.

He was deemed a game-time decision in Boston, but decided with team doctors and coaches in the afternoon to wait another two days, just to be safe. He’s a game-time decision again Thursday, but he seems optimistic he’ll be in the lineup.

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