At the conclusion of the Calgary Flames‘ last three wins, Tkachuk has wrapped up high-fives with every teammate with a jubilant, one-on-one embrace with Rittich that both find hard to describe.
“I don’t know how it started but a little hug turned into a big hug, turned into a jump and hug and now it turned into a big jump and hug – it kind of keeps going, we keep creating something,” said Tkachuk Wednesday morning, laughing when a staffer suggested he didn’t want to see how much further their enthusiasm might take them.
“This might be the last stage of that.”
Hours later the Tkachittich jump/hug was executed once again after “Big Save Dave” absolutely stole one for the Flames.
They kept it civil, with Tkachuk bouncing several times before leaping into Rittich as the horn sounded and teammates saluted the fans.
This time the whole squad likely wanted to jump into the arms of the 26-year-old goaltending godsend who has played as big a role in the Flames’ turnaround season as anyone.
On this night, the ask was to make 35 saves against a Colorado team spearheaded by the best line in hockey.
He made 32 of them in a 5-3 win the Flames otherwise didn’t deserve.
A fluke goal off the pants of Michael Frolik wound up the difference in a game that saw the Flames throw just 15 shots at a still-struggling Semyon Varlamov.
Thus, the Flames’ third-straight win with Rittich back from injury ended with man-hugs.
“I did it because he saved my ass,” laughed Rittich when asked how the animated embrace came to be following a late comeback orchestrated by Tkachuk in Philly.
This time Rittich was returning the favour, moving his record to a remarkable 16-4-3.
Heading into the first of five straight home dates, the focus was on the top two lines in the NHL.
Including Tkachuck, the game included seven of the NHL’s top 17 scorers. Only two NHL games dating back to 1992 have had as many top-20 snipers.
The storyline by night’s end was how much better the Avs trio of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon was in a game they appeared to be taking over in the second period.
After one period, they were the only Avs forwards to record shots on goal.
By the end of the second, only two other Colorado forwards had added to the shot count, as the top guns alone were on the verge of breaking a 2-2 game wide open with relentless pressure. The big three finished with 23 total shots, including 12 by Landeskog.
If not for Rittich things might have gotten out of hand.
Alas, a Flames power-play goal by Elias Lindholm with seven minutes left in the second turned the entire game around.
Rittich helped them hang on from there.
“I think they were the quicker team from the first period right until the end and the shots would support that,” said Bill Peters of an opportunistic bunch coming off a four-game roadie on which they won three times.
“Their pace throughout the lineup gave us trouble at times. We found a way to grind it out. That was a timely goal by Lindy for sure. That’s a dangerous group.”
Johnny Gaudreau’s five-game goal streak ended, but his six–game point binge continued with two assists, giving him 15 points in that stretch.
Five-on-five, his line with Sean Monahan and Lindholm was vastly overshadowed by the Avalanche Aces, who ended the night dealing with a verbal meltdown on the bench by MacKinnon that appeared to be directed at coach Jared Bednar. Colorado has one win in its last nine.
“It wasn’t our A game for sure but good teams find a way to win and I think we got better as the game went on – our third period was our best period and that’s what you’ve got to do at this time of year,” said Mark Jankowski, who spearheaded a penalty kill that stopped all four Avalanche advantages.
“(Rittich) has been a star a lot of games this year – he held us in when we shouldn’t have been in there and held the door tight for us to get a couple.”
Jankowski and Mikael Backlund also scored first-period goals to open the game.
Frolik’s lucky goal midway through the third period put the Flames up 4-2 and had fans on edge in the final 90 seconds when the two top lines faced off against each other.
A missed empty-net opportunity by the Flames led to a Rantanen goal that forced Tkachuk to score an empty-netter in the final 10 seconds.
Cue the hug.