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‘Big Save Dave’ making his name known with Flames

Things didn’t go according to plan in the Calgary crease. Thanks to the undrafted, unknown, unflappable Rittich, all’s well in Cowtown.

If you entered this season not knowing much about David Rittich, you aren’t alone.

Even Bill Peters wasn’t too familiar with the goalie’s body of work when he took over from Glen Gulutzan as the Calgary Flames’ coach. Peters – and the rest of the hockey world – have gotten to know Rittich quickly, though, as the 26-year-old pushed his way in front of Mike Smith earlier this season to claim the starting job for the upstart Flames and has been a key piece in his team’s ascension to the top rungs of the Western Conference. “I just knew the organization had a lot of confidence in him,” Peters said. “I didn’t know him very well, to be honest with you. I met him at the world championships and got a chance to say hello, that’s all.”

It seems like the Flames have uncovered one of those rare players where you wonder how exactly a guy went under the radar for so long. After going undrafted, Rittich began his pro career in the Czech Extraliga in 2014-15, and his .919 save percentage in his second season with BK Mlada Boleslav caught the attention of the Flames.

Signing Rittich wasn’t a move that turned heads at the time, but he made his first appearance with the NHL club before the end of his first season with AHL Stockton in 2016-17 and did enough over a year-and-a-half with the farm team to be called upon for 21 games in 2017-18 when Smith was battling injuries. Rittich didn’t light the world on fire in his first extended NHL stint – 8-6-3 with a 2.92 goals-against average and .904 save percentage – but he was stepping in for a team that was in free fall, and there were plenty of signs he was big-league material.

At 6-foot-3, he has the size to be an NHL goalie, his positioning is solid, and he rarely gives up big rebounds. Equally important, though, was his attitude in the dressing room, where his laid-back style quickly won over teammates. “He’s a funny guy,” said captain Mark Giordano. “He’s easygoing, easy to get along with, jokes around a lot. It’s good, especially for the position he plays, that he doesn’t let things affect him and wear on him. He doesn’t give up many rebounds and is just so solid.”

Rittich earned the backup job behind Smith coming out of training camp, but a shaky start to the campaign by the veteran opened up a slight opportunity – and Rittich took full advantage. By the time the season’s first month was through, Rittich was manning the pipes on most nights and, game after game, he stood tall as a new-look Calgary squad soared to the top of the conference and fans began affectionately calling him ‘Big Save Dave.’

The nickname only tells part of the story, though. What impressed his coaches and teammates wasn’t just the way Rittich came through in big moments, it was also the way he seemed able to remain completely unflappable even after he did let in a goal.

An example of that resiliency came in early February when Peters pulled Rittich in the first period after he allowed two regrettable goals against the division rival San Jose Sharks. The next day, Peters was asked whether he’d spoken with Rittich about the decision. The coach said they’d had a long chat about Rittich’s younger brother, Tomas, but the topic of hockey had never entered the conversation. Rittich was asked a similar question a few minutes later, and he looked at the media scrum as if they were crazy. “No, it’s part of my job,” he said of getting the hook. “You’ve never had a bad day at work? You have, and it’s the same as me.”

Whether it’s that resiliency or his big-save ability, Rittich has made the Flames’ starting job his own this season, going 20-5-5 in 31 starts with a 2.66 GAA and a .911 save percentage.

His performance has slipped a little since the all-star break, and Smith won back the crease for a few consecutive starts in mid-February. That raised questions about whether Rittich can keep up the same standard of play for the rest of the year, having never played more than 48 games in either the pros or junior. Throughout this recent slide, though, all of Rittich’s teammates have defended their goalie. As the trade deadline approached, and speculation swirled over the Flames need to buttress the crease, there was no debate inside the room that Rittich was their man. “He’s a pretty low-maintenance, always upbeat type of guy,” said defenseman Travis Hamonic. “He has that personality, it’s like a contagious energy, but you see how competitive he is. In practice, he wants to stop every single shot, and in games, most of the time he does.”

He may have entered this campaign as a relative unknown, but with Rittich playing a starring role in Calgary’s fight for its first Stanley Cup since 1989, he’s convinced the hockey world that the Flames brass was right all along. “They spoke very highly of him,” Peters said, “and the reason they didn’t go out and make a move in the off-season was they believed in him. He’s backed up that faith. — Danny Austin

WESTERN CONFERENCE HIDDEN GEMS

ANAHEIM DUCKS: Josh Manson’s versatility knows no limits. The two-way blueliner logs heavy minutes, leads the Ducks in hits and shorthanded ice time, and though he doesn’t play the power play, he showed last season he can contribute offensively. All for a little more than average NHL salary.

ARIZONA COYOTES: Energy-line center Brad Richardson was tied for the team lead in goals (11) in mid-February despite missing 13 games with an injury. Not bad for an under-the-radar 14-year veteran who’s a demon in the faceoff circle and has never made more than $2.1 million in a season.

CALGARY FLAMES: Derek Ryan’s name hasn’t made many headlines, but he’s a quiet reason why the Flames are surging. The off-season, Bill-Peters-influenced UFA signing from Carolina has stabilized the fourth line, contributed to both special teams and is top-10 in the league in faceoff percentage.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: With no blueline depth, the Hawks gave Erik Gustafsson an opportunity and unleashed a scoring beast. He scored goal No. 10 in his 50th game. Never in pro or junior in Sweden had he reached double figures in a season. He’s signed through next year at a $1.2-million AAV.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Maybe Carl Soderberg isn’t overpaid after all. He and linemates Matt Calvert and Matt Nieto lead the Avs’ forwards in defensive zone-start percentage, Soderberg paces the team in shorthanded faceoffs taken and set a career high with 17 goals by the all-star break.

DALLAS STARS: With one of the league’s toughest travel schedules, the Stars ask their backup goalies to play more than most, and Anton Khudobin has given them quite a lift starting almost 40 percent of their games. Among goalies with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5, he’s 10th in SP.

EDMONTON OILERS: Size, speed and energy are what Jujhar Khaira brings to the table. Although he’s never been a prolific scorer as he’s made his way through the Oilers’ system, the 24-year-old left winger plays with pace and purpose in the bottom-six. The budget is tight to re-sign him, though.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Alec Martinez goes about his game in a no-nonsense, no-attention way, but sometimes the less you notice a two-way defender, the better he’s doing his job. He’s as cool as they come. There isn’t a situation the 31-year-old can’t handle – he even chipped in a Cup-winning goal.

MINNESOTA WILD: Greg Pateryn was a strong under-the-radar UFA signing thanks to his shutdown ability. He and partner Jonas Brodin allow the fewest 5-on-5 scoring chances per 60 minutes of any NHL D-men, and Pateryn allows the fewest high-danger chances per 60 of any blueliner.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Colton Sissons has remained a sneaky-useful checking presence since his 2017 playoff breakout. Among 268 forwards with 500-plus minutes at 5-on-5, he’s sixth in defensive zone-start percentage, and he leads Nashville forwards in shorthanded minutes per game.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Right winger Kevin Labanc doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for the way he performs as a point guard on San Jose’s second power-play unit, gaining the zone and setting up plays using his tight edges. He also has a powerful shot and a deceptive release.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: Vince Dunn is enjoying a quiet breakout despite logging just 17 minutes per game on St. Louis’ blueline. On a points-per-60 basis, he’s among the NHL’s most productive even-strength D-men. The Blues attempt significantly more shots than they allow when Dunn is on the ice.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Jacob Markstrom didn’t start the season as a top-25 goalie in league pecking order, but he’s been steady, reliable and very much a workhorse. He ranks among the top five in minutes played, and he’s in the top 15 in SP and GAA among the 26 most active goalies.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: A year ago, Cody Eakin could’ve been classified as overpaid on some lists, with a disappointing 11-goal, 27-point season on a $3.85-million ticket. But he has stepped it up in Erik Haula’s injury absence this season and been a valuable, two-way third-line pivot.

WINNIPEG JETS: Brandon Tanev entered 2018-19 with 10 career goals and has more than doubled that total. He ranks among the top NHL forwards in hits, too. The Jets have RFAs Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba to sign, but UFA Tanev deserves double his $1.15-million AAV.

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