It has been a long time since the Flames could feel as good as they do about their goaltending situation this late in the season. Well past the halfway point, both David Rittich and Cam Talbot have routinely given Calgary a chance to win games. With 33 games to go, head coach Geoff Ward is in a great spot when it comes to managing workload and riding the right guy (hopefully) come playoff time.
The story so far
It was hard to get a good read on this goaltending tandem for the better part of the first half, mainly because it wasn’t much of a tandem. Talbot starts were few and far between, while Rittich was excelling with the largest workload of his hockey career.
It was an understandable split early on, too. The Flames were not playing well in front of their goalies, and thus it made sense to roll with the guy the team was more familiar and comfortable with (Rittich). At the same time, Talbot was trying to rebuild his confidence after a dismal 2018-19 with Edmonton and Philadelphia. It made sense to feed Rittich the vast majority of work in the first two months.
But the conversation slowly started to change as the Flames approached the midway mark. Rittich’s play dipped in late December and into January, although his last two outings would suggest that lull is a thing of the past. While that was happening, Talbot’s game really started to come around, as plotted below.
|October 3rd – December 1st||December 1st – January 16th|
|David Rittich||23||0.915||David Rittich||12||0.914|
|Cam Talbot||6||0.893||Cam Talbot||8||0.940|
Despite a little rough patch, Rittich’s season has remained steady for the most part; his save percentage from December 1st on was at 0.907 before Thursday’s stellar outing in Toronto. It’s Talbot who has really started to move the needle, though. The way he has played over the last six weeks makes it easy to be confident in Calgary’s ability to win any given night, even if they have to rely heavily on their goaltender. And let’s be honest, even with wins in six of seven, they’ve leaned on goaltending too much this season.
Down the stretch
Head coach Ward said something that jumped off the page at me earlier this month. In talking about his goaltending situation, and how he went about deciding on a starter on any given night, Ward gave some good insight on how he’s approaching things as the team moves closer to the playoffs.
“The one thing for us is that we feel it’s really necessary to use both goalies down the stretch,” Ward said. “Give them both time and then come playoff time you go with the guy that has the hot hand. For us, we feel like the depth is something we can really take advantage of and the depth of our goaltending position makes us a better team.”
I read those comments from Ward essentially as saying the team is looking to use both goalies extensively down the stretch before determining a night one playoff starter. Personally, I think that’s the right approach to take for a few reasons.
Despite Rittich’s All-Star campaign, I believe managing his workload in the final two months is imperative. He’s never shouldered a workload like he did in the first half, at any level of hockey. I’m not saying he’s going to burn out or that fatigue will definitely be a factor, but why risk it if you don’t have to? If Rittich is going to be the guy come playoff time, wouldn’t Calgary be better served if he weren’t overworked?
Playing Talbot more is important, too, mainly so the Flames have a larger sample size to work with. I’ve really appreciated how Talbot has played, but he’s only started 14 of 49 games. The more work Calgary can give him, the better book they’ll have when things matter most. What if Rittich struggles or gets hurt late in the season or in the playoffs? The Flames would be well served to have a confident Talbot ready to go.
Finally, using both Rittich and Talbot extensively down the stretch allows Calgary to have the proper body of work to make an educated decision on a night one playoff starter, assuming they get there. If I were a betting man, I think that guy would be Rittich. By giving him and Talbot a fairly even split between now and April, the Flames can be truly confident if that is indeed the final decision.