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Smith, Rittich battle for playing time, but support each other in good times and bad

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

Together, they form Calgary's fiery goaltending tandem, each wrestling for a larger share of the playing time.

They're also best friends.

Loyal partners.

And above all, compassionate sounding boards - to help, in good times and bad.

In the case of big-brother Mike Smith - a veteran of more than 500 pro starts - he's taken on a leadership role with his impressionable mentee, and wants nothing more than to see the 26-year-old evolve into the next big thing alongside him.

"Ritter's a good kid; he works hard," Smith said. "It's important to have a good relationship with your partner. He's a likeable guy and he's worked very hard to get his game to where it needs to be.

"I'm here to encourage him when he's playing, and vice-versa."

There was a moment the other night in Columbus that really drove that point home.  

Rittich was pulled after the first period after allowing three goals on 14 shots, including a last-minute marker that beat him clean under the blocker from well out, beyond the right circle. Smith came on in relief, and when the tilt came to a close, when nearly all of his teammates had filed off the ice following a 9-6 win, Smith grabbed his partner with the blade his goal stick, pulled him in close and shared a few words of wisdom.

"I've been around and seen everything," Smith said. "I've been in the minors, a pro, a starter and a backup. I've been through a lot of different situations. I think it's important to stay as even keel as possible, and I just mentioned that to him quickly. Don't hang your head. It happened. It's over.

"It's about finding that balance so you're not too high when things are going well, and not too down when something like that happens.

"It's going to happen. You can't beat yourself up when things are going poorly. It's easier said than done, obviously, but I'm here to encourage him and help him along as his career grows.

It is, after all, the way he was taught.

In his formative years with the Dallas Stars organization, Smith had all-star Marty Turco to lean on and learn from. Turco was only one of the NHL's preeminent padded puck-movers, but he was also a natural-born leader, taking Smith under his wing and helping him grow into the 'tender he's become now.

There was no me-first mentality.

No ego to speak of.

Just a mentor and his protégé working harmoniously to ensure the team benefits over all else.

"I lived at his house for a few months," Smith recalls. "I can remember an instance where I came out of my net to play the puck and gave it away, and it ended up in the back of our net. I didn't want to play the puck the rest of the game. At the next TV timeout, I came to the bench and he was like, 'What are you doing?' I was like, 'I don't want to come out now. I just gave up a goal,' and he's like, 'Get back out there!'

"He was very encouraging, in good games and bad. He always had the right things to say.

"I can remember a lot of nights where we went home to his house, enjoyed a beverage and talked about the game and the different situations. It's nice to have a guy you bounce ideas off of. I'm here for Ritter and I want to help him grow into a good goalie in this league. It was tough the other night, but that's going to happen."

For both guys.

Smith started the year with a sub-900 save percentage in eight of his first 11 appearances, allowing Rittich step in and get on a roll. He admits it was a tough stretch - his game "not nearly" at the level he wanted it to be - but used that time in the backup role to settle his game and support his partner in every way imaginable.

"You need two goalies - two good goalies - in order to win," Smith said, adding there's no blue-paint "controversy" to speak of.

"It's important both guys are feeling good."

Indeed, Smith is heating up and has wins in each of his last four appearances, including save percentages of .966, .929 and .917 in the three that he started. He'll get the nod again tonight as the Fames host the Minnesota Wild in the first of a two-game homestand, looking to build on his 9-7-1 record.

"It's a work in progress every day, to be honest with you," Smith said when asked where he thought his game was at. "Whether you're not feeling it or you're going good, you just want to be as consistent as possible. To me, what's happened in the past is over and you can't control it now. You can only control your next start, and how you prepare, and I'll look after that and hopefully have another good one tonight.

"I feel like I've come a long way these last few weeks; my game feels a lot more calm and confident, and that's a big thing in this position."

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