Calgary·Q&A

Flames enter playoffs in an unfamiliar role: Western Conference favourites, except for 1 thing

As they enter the 2019 NHL playoffs, the Calgary Flames find themselves cast in an unlikely role: leading men favoured to emerge in the west.

'I think any fan would be screaming at the radio if I didn't mention the goaltending'

Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault (85) scores on Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith (41) during the second period in Winnipeg in March. Smith is expected to start in goal for the Flames in their first playoff series. (Canadian Press/John Woods)

NDP versus UCP may be the hot button topic in a lot of Alberta households as the province heads for an April 16 election date, but for Calgary hockey fans, the hottest button topic of them all is Smith versus Rittich.

That's the Flames goaltending duo of Mike Smith (23-16-2) and David Rittich (27-9-5), both large reasons why the Flames earned the second most points in the NHL over the course of the 2018-19 season.

Both goalies also experienced their share of missteps as well, which has resulted in a season-long debate wherever Flames fans gather over which goalie to ride into the playoff season.

FlamesNation.ca editor Ryan Pike joined the Calgary Eyeopener Monday to talk about the Flames' opening round match against the Colorado Avalanche and why experience matters when you're choosing a goalie to guide your team through the spring season.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: From your view, just how different is playoff hockey from regular season hockey?

A: Playoff hockey is like a regular season hockey turned up to 11. The hits are bigger. There's a lot less space to maneuver. Good goals become great goals because there's a lot less scoring. So I think the fact the Flames have been so good at scoring in all situations in the regular season will really help them.

Q: What are the Flames' chances against Colorado?

A: The Avalanche here are a very similar team to the Flames. They're one of those teams that really rely on speed and skill. They're not likely to be one of the teams that turns the playoffs into what they normally tend to become: a sort of knock him out, take him into the alley and beat him up kind of playoff series.

They don't really have that in their game — which plays into the Flames' strength.

Q: So is this a little bit like when you buy mutual funds and they have to say that past performance is not indicative of future results? The Flames did win all three games against the Avalanche in the regular season, right?

A: They did and two or three games were pretty wild games. There's a couple of back and forth games that the Flames won, and there's one game where the Flames were down 4-1 heading into the third period, needing to score five goals to win it.

In a lot of ways, the way the season series with Colorado has gone is sort of indicative of the whole season for the Flames, in the sense that something about Colorado just brings out the best in the Flames. 

Calgary Flames' Oliver Kylington, centre, celebrates with teammates. The Flames finished second in the NHL in points in 2018-19. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Q: It does make you wonder what they're talking about in Colorado right now as they prepare for the Flames?

A: They're probably trying to figure out how to shut down the Gaudreau line and I think here that's sort of a flip side to that conversation, because Colorado has a heck of a top line too: Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon.

The challenge for Colorado is that first Landeskog and then Rantanen have been missing for the last month this season due to injury, so Colorado hasn't really had their top guns together since about March 7. The fact that they haven't really come together a lot and Rantanen hasn't really played a game in about two-and-a-half weeks might play into the Flames' strengths.

Q: All right. So you talked about the Flames' strengths. What about the weaknesses? Where are the question marks in this lineup?

A. I think any fan would be screaming at the radio if I didn't mention the goaltending there. Their starting goaltender is Mike Smith. He's 37-years-old, one of the oldest starting net minders in the game and his game is starting to fall off a bit. His big calling card is his puck handling and, you know, there's a reason why goaltenders on all 31 teams don't play the puck: most of them aren't very good at it. Smith hasn't been quite as good as he has been in the past.

When you watch highlights or when you watch the games live, every time he goes out to play the puck, you can actually hear audible gasping from the crowd because they're hoping nothing goes wrong. I'm one of those people. It makes me nervous every time he does that.

He sends guys off on odd-man rushes in games that are going to be extremely tight checking. That could be a benefit, because you actually get one or two scoring chances in the game.

The challenge is, if he doesn't do it well, it ends up on somebody's stick and potentially ends up at the back of the net.

Q: But is he a better choice than 'Big Save' Dave Rittich?

A: It's hard to say. Rittich has only played about 67 regular season games in the NHL and Mike Smith has 571. Dave Rittich has no playoff experience. Mike Smith does have playoff experience, but it's from back in 2012.

So there's pretty compelling arguments for and against either guy. I would say that Rittich has been a bit more even in terms of his performances this season. There's fewer ebbs and flows. You know if you were buying a stock on him, he'd be the safe bet.

Smith — he's very boom or bust. He's either brilliant or he's terrible and sometimes, you don't know which one you're going to get.

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener

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