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RAVE ABOUT BIG SAVE DAVE

Rittich has been simply phenomenal to start the season

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

LAS VEGAS - Call it a hunch, a lead or an instinct. 

Whatever the term, goalies - like pitchers in baseball - have a pulse on when their stuff's good. 

It appears, though, for the Flames' outgoing, No. 1 puck-stopper, to be an evergreen premonition.

"Every night, every game, I'm in the zone," David Rittich said with that rascally, wry smile we've grown accustomed to seeing in these parts, following Thursday's game in Dallas.

"That's why I'm there."

Boy, is he ever.

The story that Rittich has authored early in the new season has made for some great theatre.

In this league, goaltending can be the great equalizer.  

The Flames, believing they'd found their guy, moved all-in on the 27-year-old Czech after he enjoyed a great run last season, and the early returns are paying dividends. 

"I have confidence in my game right now," Rittich said following Friday's skate at the Golden Knights practice facility in Summerlin, Nevada. "That's a huge part. 

"I've been playing with most of the same guys for two or three years now. That's a good thing. I know what I can expect from my teammates, and that makes it a lot easier on me. If you've got a bunch of new players - defencemen, especially - it's a little bit hard, but I have the same unit in front of me from last year, which has really helped me grow."

Rittich was initially given a chance when Mike Smith struggled out of the gates last year, compiling an impressive, 27-9-5 record, warranting the apropos, 'Big Save Dave' moniker in the process. 

But this was a new kind of pressure. 

The safety net now gone, he entered the new season not as a backup hoping to chisel away at the schedule, but a starter. 

The Guy.

"I don't really look at it that way," Rittich said. "Every time, every year, I want to play more. Play better. My goal hasn't changed, no matter what the situation is. It's always about doing my best to help the team win.

"It's not like I come into the year and am like, 'Well, last year I played 30 (games), so this year I need to play 45, 60 or more.' I don't look at it that way. I just want to play more and better."

 

 

Following a magnificent, spellbinding, altogether spectacular 34-save effort last night in Big D, Rittich is now 2-1-1 on the year, with a .929 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average. 

Only Anaheim's John Gibson has been more unbeatable among goalies with four appearances to their name.

Rittich also picked up his first-ever shootout victory with stops on Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn, improving to 1-4 lifetime in the breakaway competition.

And what a time to do it. 

He kept the Flames in it. Gave 'em hope. And when it seemed the fiery comeback would finally fizzle out - a primetime gunner like Radulov stepping up looking to ice a Dallas victory on a penalty shot deep in 3-on-3 overtime - Rittich still found a way to give the boys a lift.

Calm, cool. 

Collectively awesome. 

"We've seen the confidence right out of training camp and into the pre-season," said goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet. "Even in the games where he wasn't getting a lot of work, he was still dialled in, the focus was there, and was treating those games like regular-season games.

"Now we've seen that carry over into the regular season.

"Sometimes when you face those kind of expectations (of being a starter), some guys crumble under that. He certainly hasn't taken that in a negative way, obviously, and he seems to thrive on it.

"He knows he's going to have the net more and it's easier to be confident that way, especially when you've got the talent and are playing as well as he is right now.

"We haven't quite been there as a team yet, but he's been there to kind of bail us out and get us some points."

 

 

Rittich was named the first star of the game in Dallas.

But, really, it's a marker that encapsulates the entire season so far. 

Those who know anything about Rittich would agree: His warm and approachable, fun-loving personality is both utterly infectious and good for the room.  

He keeps things light, but owns the position and is pre-disposed to personal accountability. 

He's hardest on himself, but loves to beak at his pals.

If you listen closely enough, you can hear the digs, the barrage of playful salvos and, above all, the uproarious laughter ruminating from the blue paint during practice. 

But in a game, with 19,000-plus on hand and millions more watching at home, live, coast-to-coast, on Sportsnet?

Think of the pressure. The visceral, laser-guided focus a goalie must have to handle the drama, nightly.

But that's Rittich

The ultimate teammate, a consummate pro, and the easiest guy to root for, all wrapped in one. 

"It's the biggest confidence boost you can get, I think, as a team," captain Mark Giordano said following Thursday's win. "He's been dialled in right from camp. Man, he's been really good this year - carried over from last year. Just a calm goalie, talks a lot. He's really having a great start for us."

 

 Tweet from @NHLFlames: Big.Save.Dave.#CGYvsDAL | #Flames pic.twitter.com/mwKG56kZwL

 

Rittich didn't get here by accident. Through an abundance of ambition, he worked diligently on his craft over the summer, and even took a few pages out of the book of his former mentor, Mike Smith.

His puck play has improved significantly as a result, giving the Flames' mobile defence corps another weapon on the breakout.

"We've been on our D about talking to him, doing a lot of drills in practice where he's playing it, and after every game we're going over it on video," Sigalet said. "The calls with the D are the most important thing. Even more important than the physical skill itself. If those guys are talking and Ritter can get his eyes locked on to his target - which he's working on doing - we'll break out a lot easier.

"You can already see it's having a positive effect back there."

In more ways than one. 

That relentless work ethic, drive and determination is what sets him apart. 

He wants to be the best.

'Til then, he won't rest.

"You come into practice and you can improve yourself every day," Rittich said. "I always tell myself after a game: 'No matter what the score was, it's a new day and a new opportunity to be better."

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