It’s still too early to declare a lot of things: primarily, whether this is a good team or not, and if certain players who have barely played two dozen games – if even that – have arrived. But it’s not like we’re not going to celebrate the successes when they come, and on Sunday, they came.
Feel of the game
The Flames did it again: they got off to a lacklustre start and bled a ton of chances, particularly those of the high danger variety. The difference this time, though, was David Rittich, as he patiently out-waited the onslaught until Johnny Gaudreau was able to solve a goalie first.
And really, though you never expect a game to have just one goal on it, as play continued – as the Rangers continued to press and the Flames continued to mostly flounder – it started feeling as though that one goal from Gaudreau would be enough, that Rittich was locked in. There were very few heart attack moments, an oddity considering just how much the Rangers were trying to get something going. It took the fourth line pressing in the offensive zone – a deft Mark Jankowski move resulting in a Garnet Hathaway goal – for the Flames’ game to pick up, and once it was 2-0 a win felt inevitable; Gaudreau scoring mere minutes later was just the icing on the cake.
When the Rangers finally solved Rittich early in the third period with a powerplay goal, there was still no need to panic. As the Rangers completely took over the third period, there was still no need to panic. Rittich’s first NHL shutout will have to wait for another day – if it ever arrives, at that – but he was so dialled in that it really, truly didn’t matter what the Rangers threw at him. And, partially thanks to Rittich’s work in his two starts so far, the Flames are off to a good start to the season.
The good news
This was, without a doubt, the best game Rittich has ever played. Ever. He faced 45 shots, the most he ever has in his NHL career. He stopped 44 of them for a .978 save percentage, the best he’s ever posted over a 60-minute game. By NaturalStatTrick’s count he faced 47 scoring chances and 29 high-danger corsi events. One got past him. One. And the game didn’t feel like an anomaly, and there was no tension. This is exactly what we mean when we talk about a goalie having to make those saves, and yes, Rittich did get lucky a couple of times – but he was also really, really good.
Gaudreau is on another level (again). He has 12 points in eight games this season, one of the top scorers in the NHL (tied for seventh at the moment). He’s the fourth member of his draft class to hit the 300-point mark. He’s a career .94 point-per-game player. I don’t think it gets said enough: we are so, so lucky to get to watch him night in, night out.
Speaking of Gaudreau, he’s only gone point-less in one of the Flames’ eight games this season. That could sound off alarm bells – are the Flames too dependent on him, a la a certain other Alberta team? – but that’s not quite the case. Superstars will always have their impact felt at a higher level, but the Flames have 30 goals this season; they’re one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL right now and Gaudreau is only in on 40% of it. Again: attest to the forward depth built up.
Speaking of lines and heroics, Jankowski getting back on the board is a great sign, and while we’re not exactly going to expect two-goal performances from Hathaway on the regular, kudos for some jobs well done there. Particularly for the correct response to the mindless Brady Skjei drama at the end of the game: the best revenge for attacking a rookie is a goal, not a fight. And Mark Giordano was there to protect Rasmus Andersson, anyway. Also: Andersson popping up from the bottom of the pile only to ignore everyone there and celebrate with his teammates was adorable.
Sam Bennett rang a puck off the post. That’s good news because it shows he’s still getting chances, even if they comically just won’t go in for him for some reason.
Remember when the Flames sent Andersson down to start the season? He just played most of a game on the top pairing and didn’t look half bad. Yeah, his AHL days absolutely have to be over.
The bad news
Rittich was great, but he shouldn’t have had to be that great. The Flames’ offence exploded, but its defence did not match. The problems from Friday’s game against Nashville carried over: flat play and absolutely bleeding chances, even before they established a multi-goal lead. The Flames were luckier (and had better goaltending) in this one that got them a win, and a lot of the chances against happened in part because of a three-goal lead, but it could have been significantly worse. Even if it turns out Rittich is the real deal, he isn’t going to be able to have that kind of night every night, and these guys really need to tighten up.
On that note: TJ Brodie has had his good and bad moments this season, but this game was disastrous. I assume part of the reason the Flames were comfortable trading Dougie Hamilton was that they could just turn back to the Giordano-Brodie pairing of old, and maybe that’ll work long-term, but it very much did not on Sunday. Passive would be the best word to describe his play, I think, or timid (kind of the opposite of Andersson, actually). We know he can be better than that, though; we’ve seen it this season. It’s frustrating, and maybe Andersson will be the long-term solution, but there are too many maybes surrounding a questionable defence right now.
Rittich didn’t get a shutout!! Rude. Also, Andersson still doesn’t have an NHL point yet, somehow.
Numbers of note
40% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. Their best period was the second, when they hit 50%, particularly after they came alive with two quick goals. They were a 24.32% in the third period, though, which is a testament to Rittich more than anything else: he faced 21 scoring chances and 14 high-danger corsi events alone in that frame.
19:32 – Andersson’s ice time, including 1:48 on the powerplay, the second most out of all defencemen, seven seconds shy of Giordano. He did have a 20-minute game in 2017-18’s Game 82, but other than that, this is the most he’s ever played in the NHL – and in a meaningful game, at that. He played 12:30 5v5 minutes with Giordano, and posted a 45.45% CF with him (which, remember the numbers above, that was rather good for this game).
52.17% – Dillon Dube led the Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. Again, it’s totally understandable as to why their percentages were so bad, but there’s a reason I want to draw attention to this: second was Juuso Valimaki (51.35%). Third was Jankowski (50.00%). Fourth was Michael Stone (48.65%), fifth was Hathaway (48.00%), and sixth was Andersson (46.67%). Not exactly a murderer’s row, and single-game player corsis aren’t going to mean too much, but it’s nice to see a bunch of kids up there.
10:29 and 17:00 – Bennett and Valimaki’s ice time, the least among all forwards and defencemen. Everyone got ice in this game.
+6 – The Flames have the best goal differential in the Pacific Division.
300 – The following present-day Flames have hit 300 career points: James Neal, Giordano, Michael Frolik, Gaudreau. It’s hard to do. Sean Monahan, at 289, is probably next – and he’s played 81 more games than Gaudreau has, which really attests to just how good the little guy is.
The Flames have talked about having plans to get Rittich in more games earlier on in the season. That initial plan was disrupted after Mike Smith posted a shutout and followed it up by giving up five goals in two periods the very next game. They need to figure out if Rittich is the real deal. Apparently, now would be as good a time as any. If Smith can earn an extra start because of a good game, then Rittich should be able to, as well.