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Rittich has come out of nowhere to become difference-maker for Flames

The Flames struggled to find consistency despite some impressive performances early, but taking the reins from veteran goaltender Mike Smith and handing them to David Rittich has helped Calgary climb the standings.

It was one of those signings no one would have thought much of if it didn’t amount to anything. In June 2016, the Calgary Flames handed 23-year-old David Rittich a one-year, entry-level pact. It was a flyer of sorts, a chance for the Czech goaltender the chance to get his feet wet in North America after he had risen through the ranks from the second-tier competition to the top-flight Czech League. It also gave the Flames a goaltending prospect with some size and potential. It was worth a shot.

To say that Rittich’s first go-rounds in North America were a smashing success, though, would be patently false. In his rookie campaign across the pond, he acquitted himself well in the AHL with a .927 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average in 31 games, but he was shelled in his one appearance in the big league. Last season, too, didn’t quite go as planned. In 12 games with the Stockton Heat, Rittich managed a meager .889 SP and bloated 3.18 GAA. In his 21 appearances with the Flames, he didn’t fare much better — his .904 SP was 12 points worse than starter Mike Smith’s SP, and Rittich’s 2.92 GAA was the worst of the three Calgary netminders who saw the blue paint in at least 10 games.

So, when Rittich came back into the fold on a one-year pact that saw him receive only a minor raise, the belief was he’d be relegated to backup duty once again, and maybe even end up the third-stringer by season’s end, sitting behind Jon Gillies, who the Flames have had high hopes for given his outstanding career with Providence in the NCAA.

But it was around the fourth game of the campaign, the third time in four games to start the season that Smith had been shelled for at least four goals in a contest, that Rittich was thrust into the spotlight. In a relief appearance, he cleaned up by stopping all eight shots fired his way across nearly a full frame’s duty. Two nights later, he was handed the reins by coach Bill Peters, turning aside 24 of 26 shots and propelling the Flames to an overtime victory over the Colorado Avalanche. And it’s been since about that time that Calgary’s goaltending has been rotational in nature — flipping between Smith and Rittich — though it’s starting to appear that the 26-year-old keeper is prepared to snatch the crease from his veteran counterpart on a more full-time basis.

Consider that since Oct. 21, when Rittich stopped 44 of 45 shots in a victory over thew New York Rangers, he has started seven of 15 games and appeared eight times. More telling about Rittich’s seizing of his opportunity, though, is that his consistent play has earned him the nod in six of the past 10 games, turning a clear starter-backup setup into a 1A-1B scenario in which Rittich is slowly grasping the 1A role.

Based on record alone, of course, one can see why that has been the case. Rittich’s record is nearly without blemish. He has lost only one decision thus far, piling up eight wins in the nine games he’s earned the start. Put up against Smith’s record, 5-7-1 in 13 starts, Rittich has been the more successful of the two Flames keepers. But Rittich isn’t simply backing his way into the victories. He’s earning them with exceptional play. To the numbers!

Entering Friday’s slate of games, and on a day when he is believed to be in line for his fourth-straight start, Rittich has posted an exceptional .930 SP and 2.04 GAA to go along with one shutout. By comparison, Smith skated away from last Thursday’s game, his most recent start, with an .876 SP and 3.48 GAA on the season. He also has one shutout. And the chasm between the two netminders in terms of their numbers this season can’t really be chalked up to anything other than one netminder simply outplaying the other.

While there is some difference in goal support, as Rittich has watched Calgary post 3.78 goals per game in his starts and Smith has had 3.15 goals per game in support, the variance in the Flames’ on-ice performance in front of either goaltender is limited. At 5-on-5, both Smith and Rittich fall into the class of 56 goaltenders to have played at least 250 minutes. Among those goaltenders, Rittich ranks eighth in shots against per 60 minutes (28.6), while Smith ranks 13th (29.1). And in various shot-difficulty categories — high-danger, medium-danger, low-danger — Rittich’s respective per-60 numbers (8.6, 6.4, 12.4) are comparable to those of Smith (9.6, 6.7, 11). This is all to say that while Rittich has had slightly more in the way of goal support, not all that much has fundamentally changed between the way Calgary has played in front of the two goaltenders.

The difference in performance given the workload, though, is almost eye-popping. In every major category at 5-on-5, Rittich has outperformed Smith. On low-danger shots, Rittich’s .959 SP bests Smith’s .943 SP. Likewise, Rittich’s .960 SP on medium-danger shots is worlds better than Smith’s .891 SP. And Rittich’s performance against high-danger shots, a .925 SP, isn’t even comparable to Smith’s .804 SP against the same quality shot. The overall difference sees Rittich sport a 5-on-5 SP of .951, the third-best among the aforementioned grouping of 56 goaltenders, while Smith is second-last with a .889 SP.

Can Rittich keep it up? That’s the million-dollar question, and, quite frankly, nine starts, 11 appearances and a little less than 600 minutes in the crease makes for a sample far too small to make any sweeping statements. But so long as Rittich keeps this up, the Flames are in good hands. Or at least far better hands than they were given Smith’s poor play to start the season.

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