Flames’ Goaltending Still in Question as Playoffs Draw Near

For the Calgary Flames, it seemed like the issue was put to bed ages ago. Not only was netminder Mike Smith finally hitting his stride, but newbie goalie David Rittich also looked to be coming into form. In many respects, the Flames appeared to have successfully found a cure to their longstanding netminding vulnerabilities, with two strong goalies to lean upon. However, due to unsettling recent developments, that pesky old question has come to the surface once again: does Calgary have a goaltending problem?

It is true that Smith and Rittich have each stepped up at various times this season to show fans what they are truly capable of. At their best, both of these players have carried the team on their backs, sometimes stealing unlikely victories for the Flames. However, neither goalie has been able to sustain his stellar play for very long, with recurring setbacks sinking each player’s opportunity for the starting job.

Nick Bjugstad, Mike Smith, Aleksander Barkov
Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith traps the puck. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

With the 2018-19 regular season winding down, Smith and Rittich both continue dealing with individual hurdles that hinder their performances. As the Flames start shifting their attention to the postseason, one of their biggest variables is the direction of their goaltending.

Smith Back on Thin Ice After Recent Gaffes

In all fairness, the veteran goaltender has been playing fairly well in recent weeks. Thanks to his performance, Calgary was able to carve out a seven-game winning streak to close out February. It was the Flames’ longest streak of the season thus far, and an accomplishment in which Smith played a major role. Unfortunately for Smith, even a lofty contribution such as that was not enough to keep him in Calgary fans’ good graces. The Flames’ winning streak was snapped on the night of March 2 against the Minnesota Wild – and with it, Smitty’s standing with the home crowd.

Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith
Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

It was supposed to be a night to remember for the Flames. Not only was Calgary retiring the number of Flames legend Jarome Iginla, they were also facing off against a Minnesota squad that is fighting for their lives in the wild card race. All factors considered, the Flames were poised to capture the victory, an expectation bolstered by three periods of dominant play on game night.

On the offensive and defensive ends, the Flames fired on all cylinders, hammering the Wild with 37 shots on goal while allowing only 23 shots themselves. However, 23 shots were all the visitors needed to get past Calgary. Minnesota netminder Devon Dubnyk held the line against the Flames’ blistering offence, while on the other end Smith made few but costly mistakes that resulted in easy goals for the Wild. In front of an unforgiving Saddledome crowd, the Flames fell 4-2 to the visitors, with most of the fans’ anger directed squarely at Smith.

After the game, Smith addressed getting jeered by his own crowd. “They pay their money to come here and voice the displeasures and that’s what happened,” the goalie acknowledged, “…but I don’t think anybody likes to feel like that at home.” Part of the fans’ frustration with Smith is due to his habit of recklessly leaving his crease to play the puck, a move that may sometimes stimulate the offence, but at other times yields disastrous (and often avoidable) results for his squad.

Minnesota head coach Bruce Boudreau discussed capitalizing on Smith’s mistake to capture the lead. “One part of our game plan was to go right at Smith if he had the puck. He’s usually really good or really bad, and we got a break for that.” From Boudreau’s comment, it seems the competitors knew Smith’s weaknesses well, and exploited it flawlessly to capture the victory.

Since the loss to Minnesota that Saturday night, the Flames have been on a four-game losing streak. While the slide can be attributed to numerous other factors (Calgary’s top line is not so hot right now, either), the slow-starting goaltending predicament can be seen in much of Calgary’s recent difficulties. Starting against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night (March 7), Smith allowed two goals on 25 shots while Arizona netminder Darcy Kuemper turned away all 30 of Calgary shots to capture the victory. The Flames were shut out 2-0 by the Coyotes. Faltering against an ailing Arizona squad, Smith’s struggles cannot be clearer.

Rittich Still Trying to Rediscover His Game

It has been a quiet few weeks for Rittich. Like Smith, Rittich had enjoyed numerous stretches of winning this season. At his best, Rittich looked ready to take the reins as the Flames go-to guy. However, also like Smith, the specter of inconsistency reared its ugly head, and for whatever reason, caused the promising young netminder to flounder at crucial moments. Presently, Rittich is still working hard to regain his footing, and the results, while steady, have been slow.

Rittich’s problems began on Feb. 7 versus the San Jose Sharks. It was a highly anticipated game between two top teams in the Pacific Division, a rivalry spurred further by bad blood from a prior clash on New Year’s Eve.

Flames goaltender David Rittich
Flames goaltender David Rittich (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Things looked good early for the Flames on that February evening, with Mark Jankowski opening the scoring for the Calgary side at 4:36 into the opening period. However, it would quickly go downhill after that for the Flames. San Jose forward Evander Kane tied things up minutes later at the 12:39 mark, with Brent Burns capitalizing on a Rittich misplay immediately after to bring the Sharks up 2-1. After permitting two goals on just six shots, Rittich was replaced by Smith for the remainder of the game. The Flames were defeated 5-2 by the Sharks.

After that event, things would not be the same for Rittich. With him as the starter, the Flames suffered a 4-3 shootout loss against the Vancouver Canucks (Feb. 9), before enduring a 6-3 regulation beat down by the Tampa Bay Lightning days after (Feb. 12). For the remainder of February, Rittich would be a non-factor for Calgary. With Smith at the helm, the Flames would reverse their bad fortunes and embark on that seven-game winning tear that lasted until March 2.

Detroit Red Wings' Luke Witkowski Calgary Flames Mike Smith
Detroit Red Wings’ Luke Witkowski, takes a shot on Calgary Flames Mike Smith. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

In the latest four-game slide, Rittich split the losses with Smith at two games apiece. While slowly regaining his rhythm, the struggling goaltender is still finding himself outmatched by the competition and has yet to record a victory since Feb. 3.

Against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Mar. 4, Rittich went down with the Flames in a 6-2 rout. Most recently against the Vegas Golden Knights (March 6), his play improved significantly, allowing just two goals on 38 shots. However, it would still not be enough, as Calgary fell 2-1 to Vegas in a narrow playoff-style clash.

All in all, it is evident that the question plaguing the Flames all season remains to be answered. With the playoffs only one month away, it is still unclear whether Calgary will be able to go the distance with their current goaltending arrangement. To be clear, Smith and Rittich are talented players and have time and again demonstrated that at their best they can take on the best and defeat the best. However, inconsistency remains a problem for both goalies, and it is unknown which version of either goalie will show up on game day.

As a result, the (likely) postseason-bound Flames are still wrought with uncertainty between the pipes. With season’s end on the horizon, and despite all of the team’s successes, Calgary fans still can’t breathe a sigh of relief.