While fans of the Calgary Flames certainly had a right to be quite concerned about the early season struggles of No. 1 goaltender Mike Smith, the good news is that it appears as though the 36-year-old veteran has turned the corner in a major way. Smith, who spent multiple games a few weeks ago serving as a backup to the much-improved David Rittich because of subpar play, has been rejuvenated in recent outings.
His hard work and mental toughness have allowed him to break out of a funk and Smith has seemingly taken back the reigns as the go-to-guy thanks to a current hot streak. His latest triumph was a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators and followed fresh on the heels of one of his best performances of the season in a shutout win over the Minnesota Wild.
It’s definitely no secret that the Flames have struggled to find an elite netminder since the retirement of the great Mikka Kiprusoff several seasons back. The position has basically been a revolving door in recent years and general manager Brad Treliving was hoping that Smith, whom he was very familiar with dating back to their time with the Arizona Coyotes organization, would be the one to finally provide some stability between the pipes.
While Smith’s initial season in Calgary had some fine moments, including an All-Star appearance, unfortunately, a nagging injury led to missed time and less than stellar play down the stretch in what was ultimately a non-playoff campaign. When Smith faltered out of the gate to kick off the 2018-19 season, there were fears that perhaps he would join the long line of recent goaltending disappointments. However, the fiery Smith has responded to his early adversity in a very professional and most importantly winning fashion.
Recent Play a Stark Contrast to Early Season Misery
Smith is currently in the midst of a personal six-game win streak. His second shutout of the season against the Wild, which was the 38th of his career, followed a victory in relief of Rittich in a frantic 9-6 victory over Columbus. Smith has also turned in strong performances in victories against Arizona, Los Angeles and Chicago during a promising stretch that has seen the veteran surrender just nine goals in total.
It’s an immense turnaround after Smith struggled mightily in the early going. Smith’s recent success has elevated his won-loss record to 11-7-1 and he’s been able to get his goals against average down to 2.84 and save percentage up to a more respectable .894 after a disastrous start.
Since a rough patch that included an ugly game-winning goal against in a 3-2 home loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Smith played the role of spectator in seeing Rittich start four consecutive contests. That time of reflection paid off in spades and Smith definitely seems to have gotten his swagger back.
A 6-1 victory over Arizona was the first part on the road to redemption and, for the most part, it’s been clear sailing since. A terrific 31-save effort against the Wild and his latest win against a strong Nashville unit helped keep the good times rolling. During this stretch, Smith has been able to come up with stellar saves at critical moments which was definitely not a trademark during his early season struggles.
A prime exhibit of the Smith turnaround could be seen in this past Saturday’s win against the Predators. After allowing a soft game-tying marker, Smith didn’t crumble and instead proved flawless the rest of the way as his teammates picked him up with three straight goals in the 5-2 triumph. This impressive run has definitely helped to strengthen Smith’s case as being a No. 1 netminder. Not only has he been better, but his teammates have done him a favor in keeping the shots against to a manageable level and providing the necessary offense.
Smith, Rittich Duo Is as Dependable 1-2 Punch
The Flames have asserted themselves as one of the top scoring teams in the Western Conference, and are a very tidy plus-22 in the goals differential category. Now that Smith and Rittich are proving to be a dependable one-two punch, Calgary’s prospects for returning to the playoff dance this year would appear to be greatly enhanced. Rittich has also taken his game to the next level, and by pushing Smith, he’s not only made himself better, but has allowed the veteran to re-ignite his competitive fire in making a return to proper form.
Rittich is having a strong campaign with a pleasantly surprising record of 8-3-1 with a goals against average of 2.29 and a .922 save percentage. His tough recent outing in Columbus was a rarity as Rittich has been able to shine in most of his appearances, including a strong effort in a 1-0 loss in Edmonton that saw the Flames’ Pacific Division-leading record dip to a still highly respectable 19-10-2.
Flames’ Confidence Grows With Smith Turnaround
It’s not too difficult to see the confidence level of the team rising thanks to Smith’s latest performances. The club isn’t skating around on eggshells worried about an early opening goal, or a bad goal at the worst possible time that could lead to a negative snowball effect. Smith has shown that he can definitely be trustworthy when the game is on the line. He continues to showcase excellent puck handling skills and is as tenacious as they come in doing whatever he can to keep the puck out of the net.
Earlier this season, the Flames were winning contests despite Smith rather than because of him thanks to their high-powered attack. That concerning situation has taken a definitive turn in the right direction and should be viewed as an extremely positive development. There are no longer lingering questions when it comes to Smith and the crease-situation would appear to be in capable hands after some tough sledding early on.
Have loved sports since an early age as both a fan and a participant and eventually was fortunate enough to get into the Sports Radio business. The highlight of my career was being part of Calgary Flames broadcasts at Sportsnet 960 The Fan during their run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. I was an on-air personality from 2001 to 2012 at the station and had the pleasure of covering many a game at the Saddledome over that period. In the last few years I’ve transitioned to sports writing and have been an NHL contributor for RantSports.com and most recently a UFC writer for Today’sKnockout.com.