As the only NHL tandem to have played in last year’s NHL all-star game, David Rittich figured in camp he and Jacob Markstrom had a chance at being the league’s top duo.
Nine games in, only one has held up his end of the bargain.
While Markstrom has been every bit as good as advertised, Rittich has been unable to get the kind of outing he hoped would erase memories of last season’s late struggles.
Resigned to the fact he’d play a much more limited role this season, it puts all the more pressure on him to ensure he makes the most of rare starts.
It’s a dilly of a pickle for the 28-year-old Czech netminder who only recently got his first start in almost 11 months. Making his second start of the season Tuesday, Rittich finished much the same way as he did his first – with a loss.
It would be patently unfair to pin either setback on Rittich. However, it would also be hard to suggest he should be thrilled with either start, leaving him with a .857 save percentage and 3.56 goals-against average in two tries.
As part of the Flames’ recent tradition of opening with a two-goal deficit, Rittich was beaten three times in the first 13 minutes to dig a hole the club couldn’t climb out of.
A pair of Matthew Tkachuk goals made it close, as did a handful of timely saves by Rittich to keep them in the game, but the backup is still seeking the comfort of his first win.
“The first period was tough, I gave up three goals, which I should get some of them,” said Rittich, who had no chance on Nikolaj Ehlers' redirect, and was beaten clean on two other good shots.
“It’s hard to get your game when you are not playing that much. It’s something I knew I’d have to figure out and go through. How the game went on I got my feeling back and battled through.”
Sure did, and that’s what head coach Geoff Ward, goalie coach Jason LaBarbera and everyone else in the room will focus on with a goalie who has lost his last six starts dating back to last season.
He’s allowed no fewer than three goals in all those games, including the trio he gave up in 16 minutes of impossible relief the night the Flames were eliminated from the playoffs.
None of this is to question the ability of Big Save Dave. It’s simply to point out how important it is he finds his confidence and comfort level soon to not only give the team a chance at the playoffs, but to take pressure off Markstrom while opening up opportunities for him on the open market next summer.
“It’s extremely critical, and I thought he got stronger as the game went on,” said Ward when asked about the need to get Rittich into a groove.
“Gosh, we didn’t give him much help on those goals against in the first period. He battled through and gave us a chance to win at the end. At the end of the day, I think he’s going to draw some confidence out of this. Talking to (LaBarbera), and from what we saw, it was a good performance from him. He didn’t have very much of a chance on those goals. He made some big saves in the second and third when we needed him to, and I’m sure that’s going to give him some confidence and get him some momentum going his way.
“We’re going to need both our goaltenders. We like our tandem. Our team is confident with David in the net. He’s won an awful lot of hockey games for us, played some huge games for us, stole some games for us. We just want him to find his game and be what he can be. He was all-star goalie for a reason. We want him to find his way back to that form.”
He’s not there yet.
Asked to rate his confidence level, and if he was frustrated by his start, Rittich shrugged.
“Why should be frustrating? I play two games and it was some tough bounces, but that’s hockey – it’s going to happen,” said the personable Rittich, always upbeat.
“My confidence level is pretty good. The guys can say I’m a pretty hard worker and I’m working hard in practice.”
As part of the team-wide effort to help boost Rittich, Derek Ryan jumped in on the post-game Zoom call with Rittich by his side to confirm his goalie’s mindset is in a solid state, praising his work ethic and attitude all season long.
“I think David is doing a really good job in probably a situation he hasn’t seen before and not comfortable with,” said Ryan.
“He’s been great around practice and working hard and staying positive.”
Ryan confirmed the real issue Tuesday was the early deficit his team keeps finding itself in.
“I think our starts have to be better in general,” said Ryan, whose club allowed a short-handed goal by Trevor Lewis, followed by a Derek Forbort strike 30 seconds later, a mere seven minutes in.
“We’ve got to find our legs and be more mentally prepared. It’s definitely something we’re trying to focus on.”
Tkachuk’s fourth of the year cut the deficit in half 35 seconds later, before Ehlers’ put the Jets up 3-1 13 minutes into the opening frame.
Asked if he considered pulling Rittich, which would have been a ridiculous move, Ward didn’t hesitate.
“No, never thought about it,” said Ward, whose club plays the rubber match with Winnipeg Thursday.
“He’s got to find his game and we’ve got confidence in him. It’s a totally different role for him. He’s used to having the start and being the guy that’s in there and playing a lot of minutes. Having it the other way around when you’re not getting a regular start and having to come off the bench is a whole different mentality. I think he’s dealing with it well.”
It’s a process. But with every loss comes more hesitation by the coaching staff to try balancing a workload they’d love to even out more, as originally planned.
Johnny Gaudreau, who extended his league-leading point streak to nine games with an assist on Tkachuk’s late goal, had a chance to tie the game while all alone in front with 15 seconds left, only to have Laurent Brossoit make his 29th save of the night.
The Jets will now debate whether Brossoit deserves a second consecutive start Thursday.
The Flames coaches won’t likely have a similar debate on their hands.