TORONTO — David Rittich let out a sigh as he briefly took a seat in Calgary’s empty locker-room Thursday night.
The Flames’ all-star goalie had earned the rest.
Rittich made 35 saves in regulation and overtime before stopping all three Maple Leafs in the shootout as Calgary downed Toronto 2-1.
“It was a hard game,” he said. “I’m kind of tired right now. Can’t wait to (get on the) airplane.
“It wasn’t easy.”
Matthew Tkachuk, who’s been at the centre of a heated feud with the rival Edmonton Oilers this week, connected in the shootout for Calgary (26-18-6), which also got a goal from Derek Ryan in the second period.
“You want to reward him,” Tkachuk said of Rittich. “You want to do everything in your power to win the game for him. He was our best player tonight, easily.”
He also robbed Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson with big saves in the middle period before getting to a Matthews effort on a 2-on-1 in the third.
So, did he have a favourite stop?
“I don’t know,” Rittich deadpanned. “Ask my groin.”
William Nylander knotted the game in the third for Toronto (25-16-7). Frederik Andersen, who had given up 14 goals over his last four starts, stopped 31 shots.
“It was a pretty even game,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That’s a big point for us.”
With his mouthguard dangling from his lips and boos raining down from the crowd, Tkachuk beat Andersen between the pads on Calgary’s second attempt in the shootout.
“I hoped he watched the pre-scout on Andersen,” Rittich said of what he was thinking as the star winger moved in on goal. “And I was like, ‘Finally, someone shoots to five-hole.’ I was glad he did it.”
Tkachuk has been embroiled in a war of words with Oilers forward Zack Kassian since Saturday’s testy showdown in the Battle of Alberta. Kassian was suspended two games by the NHL for jumping Tkachuk after the latter rocked him with two crunching body checks.
The NHL saw no issue with either hit, but Kassian called the contact “predatory,” adding that he has “a long memory.” Tkachuk wouldn’t bite when asked about the comments Thursday morning and stuck with the tight-lipped approach following the victory.
“A normal five days for me.”
Ryan said Tkachuk feasts on big moments.
“He loves being in the spotlight,” said the Flames centre. “He loves being in the high-pressure situation.”
Down 1-0 through 40 minutes, the Leafs tied things on their fourth power play when John Tavares found Nylander, who had gained position at the lip of Rittich’s crease, to tip home his 21st of the season at 8:35.
Born in Calgary when his father was a member of the Flames, Nylander nearly gave Toronto its first lead moments later when he deked around Oliver Kylington, but Rittich was there to bail out his defenceman.
“He was reading the play extremely well,” Tavares said. “He wasn’t making it easy for us to beat him.”
After Calgary couldn’t connected on a man advantage with under eight minutes to go, Rittich stoned Matthews — the Flames are the only NHL team the centre has failed to register a goal against in his career — on that 2-on-1.
“It was a really fun game to be a part of,” said Andersen, who made two big stops of his own in OT and is also going to the all-star game in St. Louis. “Both teams played well and he made some good saves.”
Ryan gave Calgary a 1-0 lead at 7:34 of the second when he redirected Travis Hamonic’s point shot for his ninth.
Toronto came close later in the period when Rittich made a nice save on Nylander’s tip of a Travis Dermott drive.
The Calgary netminder, who was named to his first all-star game Wednesday as an injury replacement for Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, was at it again with a pad stop on Kapanen off the rush before stretching to deny Johnsson.
The Flames saw their five-game winning streak come to an end Monday in a 2-0 loss to the Canadiens in Montreal where Rittich put in another 35-save performance after giving up 11 goals in his three previous appearances.
“Hard teamwork,” he said of what’s been clicking the last two weeks. “Everyone fighting.”
The Leafs, meanwhile, halted an ugly 0-2-1 stretch — one that saw them surrendered a 17 combined goals — with a 7-4 victory over the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
Rittich, an undrafted 27-year-old, downed Toronto 4-2 in Calgary on Dec. 12, the last time its potent offence was held under three goals before Thursday.
“We were creating a lot of chances,” Nylander said. “Their goalie stood on his head.”
Toronto played its second game minus star defenceman Morgan Rielly, who joined fellow top-4 blue-liner Jake Muzzin on the shelf this week with a broken foot that’s expected to keep him out until at least March 10.
The Leafs and Flames each have one more game before a nine-day break that includes the league-mandated bye week and the all-star game. Toronto hosts Chicago on Saturday, while Calgary is at Ottawa.
“Our goaltending was excellent,” Flames head coach Geoff Ward said. “We stayed with it and found a way at the end.”