The Flames season was on the verge of turning into a mini civil war before October even ended. What was a talented team, and more than talented enough to compete in a learning annex of a division that is the Pacific, couldn’t stop spinning its wheels. They were scoring enough, were even fun to watch for the first time in a dog’s age, but kept seeing their work undone by bulging twine in their own end. The fans had already starting crafting effigies of Mike Smith. You can’t help but wonder if some of the players started to have furrowed brows as well, given the way Smith continually tossed them under the bus for his struggles in the press.
And then, over the ridge, at first just a silhouette on the horizon, but quickly coming into shape and definition, an apparition of hope and salvation, appeared “Big Save Dave” Rittich. And suddenly the Flames season was pulled from ash and chaos…
Ok, that’s dramatic. But the Flames are tussling at the top of the Pacific, where very few would have had them before we kicked this all off, mostly thanks to their goaltender from out of the ether (or the Czech Republic).
And make no mistake, Rittich has earned that “Big Save Dave” moniker, while at the same time proving that though it was indelicate, Smith may not have been wrong in shredding the Flames defense in front of him.
Currently, Rittich ranks first among all goalies with 500 minutes of even-strength time in high-danger save-percentage, at .883. Quite simply, this is a bonkers number. Last year, Corey Crawford had the best high-danger SV% at .859. The highest mark in this category from the past five seasons is Carey Price‘s .876 in ’16-’17, which earned him a Vezina finalist slot. No one else has been above .870 for a season when it comes to stopping the best chances.
And Rittich has had to be. Both he and Smith are in the seven-lowest expected-save-percentages in the league, meaning they’re facing some of the best chances around every night. Which is a touch weird, given that the Flames give up the third-lowest amount of attempts per game in the league. But the ones they do give up tend to be prime. Rittich has pulled their ass out of a sling, Mike Smith has eaten that sling.
That’s getting better, though. The Flames were 24th in October in scoring chances against, and 30th in high-danger chances against. In November that has improved to 2nd and 5th, respectively. They haven’t needed as much of the big saves that Rittich was so happily providing, which is good. It’s also why they rocketed up the standings.
It would behoove them to keep that going, because given the recent history, Rittich isn’t going to be able to keep up anything near a .880 SV% on high-danger chances. And Rittich’s pedigree is a little on the light side. He played 31 games in the AHL last year and put up a .924 overall, which is promising. But it’s 31 games. Other than that, it’s all back in the Czech Republic.
But the Flames have little alternative. Smith is what he is at this point, despite his acting chops. He was sinking their season, and Rittich has saved it. They might as well see how far the bolt of fortune can take them, especially if they’re tuning up their defensive game.
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