Seeing Mike Smith’s recent uptick in performance is nothing but positive for the Flames. Smith’s 3-0-1 record in four consecutive starts is an encouraging sign, but also remains a small sample size compared to the entire season’s body of work.
Likewise, while David Rittich’s play has dipped of late, it’s in contrast to his larger scale of work. Lots can change over the next 22 games, but through three quarters of the season, the evidence suggests Rittich is still Calgary’s best bet to start night one of the postseason.
The narrative for some right now suggests Smith is in the process of, or has already succeeded in, winning back the number one job. While that might be partial true internally, my feel is it’s far too early to draw that conclusion. With 60 games to use a sample size, Rittich has had the more trustworthy campaign and should still be the frontrunner to start for the Flames night one of the postseason.
Let’s take a closer look at how the season has played out for both goalies.
Rittich had an outstanding month of October and has struggled in four February games, but by and large, he’s been steady and consistent the majority of this year. The 23 games in the middle of Rittich’s two extremes really tell the story for me. A 0.913 mark over the course of three months is very respectable and was more than enough to give Calgary an opportunity to win in front of him.
Rittich has shown he can play at, or above, league average for an extended period of time. For the most part, specifically through the first four months of the season, you had a good idea of what Rittich was going to give you on a nightly basis. That was the opposite of Smith during that stretch, as Calgary’s veteran goalie was wildly inconsistent until recently.
Rittich’s February numbers are a total departure, which leads me to believe this is more of a blip on the radar than a negative trend. Perhaps he’s fatigued or maybe it’s just a bad stretch, but Rittich hasn’t looked quite as good recently, even dating back to January. He’s also been strong and steady for most of the season, so I’m curious to see how things progress between now and April.
Give credit where it’s due: Smith has looked solid over his last four games, and probably the best he has all season. Starting four straight for the first time since the very beginning of the year, Smith is 3-0-1 with a 0.915 save percentage during this stretch. He looks engaged and far more calm and composed between the pipes, which has not always been the case.
Until only recently, Smith faced a couple of significant issues: too many pucks going in relative to shots and the type of shots getting by him. It seemed as if a questionable goal was on the docket on a nightly basis, which is not a comforting thought heading into the playoffs. Thankfully, Smith seems to have gotten on top of this trend, at least temporarily, in his last number of starts.
With somewhat similar peaks in October and February to Rittich, Smith’s game has been consistently below 0.900 most of the year. This recent reversal is promising and comes at the right time, as it allows the Flames to ramp up his workload down the stretch. It’s also just a stretch of four games, though, which means he’ll need to keep playing at this level for a while longer to truly be “back”.
At all points of the season, I’ve believed in the importance of having both goalies at optimal. For most of the year, that meant ensuring Smith was not forgotten while Rittich was leading the way and getting the bulk of the starts. The roles have been reversed since the beginning of February, but that doesn’t change the importance of investing in both players.
Going too long between starts for Rittich doesn’t make a lot of sense, even with his play dropping off this month. Rittich has put together the better body of work and has only run into trouble in his last four starts. Smith has made this a conversation, which is a positive, but if the playoffs were to begin today, I still think Rittich has earned the right to start night one.
Let’s see how much things change in the next 22 games.