Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving has been quoted as saying, at times the sport shouldn’t be called hockey, it should be called goaltending.
There is really no debating that, at any level in hockey, the gentlemen or ladies playing between the four-by-six are vitally important to their teams’ success. Nineteen games into the Flames’ 2018-19 campaign, there has been no hotter topic than goaltending. In the eye of the storm: 36-year-old veteran and No. 1 netminder Mike Smith.
In his second year as a Flame, Smith has had a rough start to the season, culminating in an agonizing third-period goal allowed in a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night at Scotiabank Saddledome — game in which the Flames were the dominant team, outshooting the Canadiens 45-22.
On paper the numbers don’t look good. Smith has posted a record of 5-7-1 with a 3.48 goals-against average and an .876 save percentage — well shy of his career 2.71 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Twenty-six-year-old David Rittich, on the other hand, is off a terrific start with a 5-1 record, a 1.91 goals-against average and an impressive .935 save percentage in just his second NHL season.
The Flames’ utilization of their two netminders has been front and centre amongst fan attention and opinion. In a sports world where I find many make their judgements based almost solely on numbers, there are many who feel the time has come to go with Rittich and give him the bulk of the work for a while.
There is no arguing with that, having seen with my own two eyes that Rittich is playing the best of his young career. In compiling those numbers, the product of the Czech Republic has looked far more comfortable and confident in achieving them and has been a huge factor in a number of Flames’ wins this season. It’s one thing in hockey to play well as a back-up. It’s another when you have to carry the mail game in and game out.
Rittich had that very opportunity when Smith went down with an injury for a month last February, and the results were mixed at best.
But in analyzing this complex situation, Smith’s body of work should matter. While Rittich has played in 30 NHL games, Smith’s next outing will be his 543rd. Just one season ago, Smith was on his way to earning a trip to Tampa to participate in his second All-Star Game.
Good players, even the best players in sports, go through ups and downs and lose their confidence as a result. Smith has been a good goaltender for a long time, and my guess is he works his way out of it and back into form.
Rittich, for his efforts, will get the start Saturday night against the Edmonton Oilers in 2018-19’s first Battle of Alberta. A big stage on home ice, where he has only played eight of his 30 games. Being at your best on big stages can go a long way to earning more starts. The gregarious highly competitive young netminder has earned the opportunity with his play.
Smith is as competitive, hard-working, passionate and proud as they come, and the deployment of the two netminders will be fascinating to watch going forward. But the Flames, in my opinion, aren’t likely to reach their first goal of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs without both goalies being at the top — or near the top — of their game.
In a week where Calgary voters said no to the prospect of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics and lighting another torch, only time and games will determine whether the Flames’ goaltending torch is about to be passed.