EDMONTON – This series was supposed to be all about Connor Hellebuyck.
Instead, it’s the guy at the other end of the rink shining the brightest – the guy no one was sure would even get a playoff start.
Cam Talbot, the man who was simply looking for a place to try resurrecting his career last summer, has taken centre stage.
Following the Flames’ most complete effort of the season in Game 3, coach Geoff Ward was asked to name his best player.
“Our goalie,” said Ward, who watched the 33-year-old make 33 stops in a series-tilting 6-2 win over the Jets on Tuesday.
“What can you say about our goalie? He was outstanding again. When he needed to make a big save, and it seemed like he needed to make more of them tonight, he was there to do it. You need goaltending at this time of year to win, and he certainly today was a formidable guy on our team.”
To start Talbot was a big decision by the coach, who is also on an audition of sorts as the interim boss.
A lot was on the line, so he needed to nail it.
After all, David Rittich was not only an NHL all-star, but is the lone netminder under contract with Calgary next season.
Still, given their respective play during the last few months of the season and – more importantly – in camp, Talbot was the easy choice to start.
A fitness freak who pushed himself intensely throughout the COVID-19 pause, Talbot’s mission to prove he can be a top goalie in this league has landed him this golden opportunity – a shot to attract attention and money from potential suitors this fall when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
A well-liked tandem-mate for Rittich, the Flames would love to re-sign the former Oiler who is driving his stock up with every start.
While pacing the Flames to a 2-1 series lead, Talbot has posted a tidy 2.02 GAA and .925 save percentage.
It surprises no one in Calgary who watched the soft-spoken veteran quietly compile a 2.63 GAA and .919 save percentage in 26 games this season — numbers almost identical to Hellebuyck’s, aside from workload.
And here he is, getting the better of the likely Vezina winner, whose GAA is 3.38 with a save percentage of .894.
“I have to give credit to the guys in front of me,” said Talbot after Game 3.
“I didn’t have to make a ton of big saves (Tuesday), but the guys in front of me played unbelievable and gave me a chance to see the puck and cleared out those second chances.”
Modest, but he speaks the truth. Talbot has become such an efficient, positionally sound netminder that he has been rarely called upon to make spectacular saves.
What has helped is a veteran group of defencemen in front of him, doing well to keep high-danger chances to a minimum.
“He’s always square to the shooter, and as long as you’re clearing sticks and clearing guys out with the second chances, he’s going to make that stop,” said Matthew Tkachuk after Game 3.
“He was Steady Eddie back there. He gives us a lot of confidence. He’s playing the puck well when he’s out of the net right now. I loved his performance (Tuesday). Even when we were down 1-0 and we made it 1-1, he made some big saves to keep it a tie game. He’s calm. Early in the third, they made a big push and he was there for all the stops until we got that fifth goal. Honestly, it’s what we are used to right now with him. He’s just playing really steady and giving us a lot of confidence.”
Confidence is exactly what Talbot sought to regain this season following two disastrous campaigns that led to a trade out of Edmonton to the goalie graveyard in Philadelphia. With the help of his age-old goalie coach, Pat Di Pronio, he dug deep in the off-season to find the form that won him 42 games and made him a Vezina candidate in 2016-17.
As the goalie debate raged in Calgary during training camp 2.0, most agreed whoever got the start would have a short leash should things go sideways. After all, with three games in the first four nights of playoff action, it wouldn’t hurt if the two goalies split the workload anyway.
Suffice to say, Talbot is the Flames’ guy moving forward, with little chance of Ward giving up on him early, even though the Jets have opened the scoring in all three games.
“It means a lot,” said Talbot of the confidence his coach and teammates have put in him.
“Every save is important, especially when the guy at the other end is up for the Vezina Trophy and you know he’s not going to give up too many.”