Despite being in the final stretch of what is likely the second-best regular season in franchise history, Flames goaltending has been a fiercely polarizing topic all season long. While I can’t tell you the conversation is going to die down anytime soon, I can tell you this: Calgary has a difficult goalie decision approaching very quickly. Will it be Mike Smith or David Rittich to start the 2019 postseason?
All of a sudden that’s not such an easy choice, which is only positive news for the Flames.
Seventy-six games in, there’s no doubting who’s had the stronger overall body of work. Rittich has had the better, more consistent season as opposed to Smith, which deserves some recognition. In November and December, specifically, Calgary owes a lot of their success to Rittich’s solid play.
Rittich’s strong first half of the season allowed the team to thrive even as Smith struggled. It also served another purpose: it allowed Smith to get his game in order without the pressure of a team resting on his shoulders. And, as you take a look at the month-by-month spreads, Smith has been able to figure things out.
The biggest positive when looking at those trends is Smith’s recovery, because he has returned to being a viable NHL goaltender over the last couple months. I would caution you to look at Rittich’s statistical drop as a big time negative, though. A closer look at things since Calgary’s January break fleshes that out a little more.
SINCE THE BREAK
Smith and Rittich have basically had an even playing time split since the Flames came back from their nine-day CBA break. The overall numbers heavily favour Smith, which underlines his positive trend; in 13 starts since the beginning of February, Smith has allowed two goals or fewer 10 times. I know he struggled early, but even those staunchest in the anti-Smith camp can’t deny he’s turned a corner.
Rittich’s numbers aren’t as alarming as they seem, though. Remember, perhaps Rittich’s two worst outings of the year have come since February began: a 6-3 loss in Tampa Bay and a 6-2 loss at home to Toronto. The Flames were no good in front of Rittich on both nights, so it was hard to pin much on him in either loss.
I’m not cherrypicking starts to make Rittich’s numbers look better, I assure you. However, knowing how steady Rittich has been all season long, I think it’s valid to remove a pair of bad outings where the team was junk in front of him to help illustrate consistency. Removing the Leafs and Lightning losses, Rittich’s save percentage since Feb. 1 sits at 0.916, while his season number jumps from 0.911 to 0.917.
It just so happens Rittich’s two worst starts this year have come in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean he’s fallen off a cliff. The fact is, both goalies are in relatively strong form, which is only…
Regardless if you lean more towards Rittich or Smith at this point, it’s tough to deny Calgary’s goaltending situation has stabilized in a big way. I believe Rittich is the team’s best option to start the playoffs; I like how calm he is in the crease, how he challenges shooters, and how he doesn’t play deep in his net.
If the Flames opt to go with Smith, or if Rittich gets hurt or struggles, I’m still comfortable in their ability to win, though. Having two capable goaltenders playing well is important heading into the playoffs; Washington, Pittsburgh, and Chicago have all used two goalies in deep playoff runs in recent years.
Sure, the ideal circumstance is having one guy carry the ball from start to finish en route to a Stanley Cup. Ideal circumstances are rare in the playoffs, though. That’s why the Flames wanted a tough goaltending decision going into this year’s postseason. With what we’ve seen of late, they’ve got one, and that’s an extremely positive development.