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Teammates rallying around fun-loving Flames goalie

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

LAS VEGAS - He means more to his team than wins, losses and a microscopic goals-against could ever say.

He's become a leader.

A fan-favourite.

And above all, a bubbly beacon of energy that makes Rittich not just Dave, but …

"Big Save Dave," laughed Juuso Valimaki. "I've definitely heard the nickname.

"I love it. Has a nice ring to it."

Indeed, a moniker well earned.

Entering Saturday's matinee rematch against the Vegas Golden Knights, Rittich owned a glimmering 8-1 record with one shutout, a 2.04 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.

While his blue-paint prowess has been a boon for the division leaders from Calgary, it's the easy-going, fun-loving personality that's endeared the charismatic netminder to his teammates.

Valimaki knows that better than anyone, with his locker-room seating assignment putting him as the goalie's immediate left-side neighbour. He gets a front-row seat to Rittich's playful salvos, and the obsessed, inner focus that makes him such a fiery competitor.

"Little chirps here and there," Valimaki said, "but he gets it back, too. Trust me.

"We have a good, good-and-take relationship that way.

"You can tell he has a lot of confidence, and that rubs off on everyone in here. He has a little bit of spice in him, too, and we saw that on Wednesday."

Ah, yes. The infamous moment where Rittich, who felt a poke from underneath his glove, stormed to his feet and - perhaps unwisely - chased down the perpetrator …

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound behemoth, Dustin Byfuglien.

"A little bit of a scary moment," he said after the game, to the amusement of the press, admitting he didn't quite know what he was getting himself into.

Captain Mark Giordano had to pause for moment when asked, in typical Vegas fashion, who he had his money on in that primetime bout.

"Yeah… Depends on if he keeps his goalie equipment on the whole fight," he laughed.

His influence in a game is easily calculable, but to what effect does Rittich's utterly infectious personality do for a young locker-room?

According to Jordan Sigalet - the Flames' fourth-year goaltending coach - it's invaluable, having seen the tender's development first-hand from the moment the arrived in 2016.

"You need different personalities in there and he's a big one," Sigalet said. "He came over two years ago and didn't know any English at all, so to be learning the language and to kind of make fun of himself doing so, the guys obviously get a kick out of it, but it also shows a level of humility that makes him a fast learner in the crease as well."

Head coach Bill Peters agreed, adding that the team is clearly feeding off the goalie's get-up-and-go mentality, both on the ice and in the dressing room.

It's an element to the game that simply can't be charted.

"You need those types of guys," he said. "I assume - although I've never done it and never will - but I assume he'd be a fun guy to go out for dinner with, especially if you stick him with the tab.

"Just a good guy. You want to be around guys with energy. He provides energy to the group and he's playing real well, too."

The players can attest.

Alternate captain Matthew Tkachuk is one of Rittich's in-room pals. Those two have a bond that's especially evident during stoppages when they carefully plan out the minutes ahead, or celebrate after a win with a great big bear hug.

"He's an awesome teammate," Tkachuk said. "He's just so positive all the time. Even during TV timeouts, I always go check on him and see what's going on. 'What do you need? What's up?' And he's always happy. He comes to the bench and is like 'Come on, boys. Great work out there.' Doesn't matter what's happening in the game, he's always that positive influence and keeps our bench propped up and feeling good about ourselves."

Keeping things upbeat is Rittich's M.O. Hockey's a game, after all, and the 26-year-old is living proof that it's OK to smile and have fun once in a while.

Even in practice, when the guys need a boot in the pants.

"He doesn't really chirp," Tkachuk laughed. "I don't really know how to describe it.

"He just says funny stuff and we all get a kick out of it.

"He's an awesome guy."

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