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Coaches Room

Flames face several challenges in transition to new No. 1 goalie

Marcoux discusses intricacies, issues of apparaent ascension of Rittich as starter

by David Marcoux / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2018-19 NHL season by one of two former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux and Paul MacLean will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Marcoux, former goalie coach for the Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames, examines what appears to be the transition to a new No. 1 goalie in Calgary.

I've always said attitude dictates altitude. This saying applies especially to goalies.

As the Calgary Flames transition to David Rittich from Mike Smith as the No. 1 goalie, they need a positive attitude from each while trying to hold on to the top spot in the Western Conference.

 

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Rittich, who is 20-4-4 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .918 save percentage this season, has started eight of the 13 games since Jan. 1, going 7-0-1.

Smith, the No. 1 at the start of the season, is 14-10-1, with a 3.08 GAA and .889 save percentage. He is 3-2-0 since Jan. 1.

I should stress that I'm not in that dressing room, but drawing from my past experiences, these are my observations on what might be happening with this goalie situation

Each coach handles his goalie rotation differently.

During my time working with Mike Keenan in Calgary, he lived and died with his No. 1 goalie, so there was never any doubt Miikka Kiprusoff would start on most nights. Darryl Sutter would generally make his decision about the starting goalie on a game-by-game basis.

However, while with the Carolina Hurricanes under Bill Peters, now the coach of the Flames, we would have a discussion as a staff about the lineup, including the starting goalie. I needed to be ready to present my case based on key factors that would allow us to be the most competitive for the next game.

There are many elements that can influence the decision to play a certain goalie.

When is the next game? Did the goalie win his last game and feel confident? How does the goalie who last played feel, physically and mentally? Is there a back-to-back scenario? Is travel involved and, if so, is a change in time zones involved? Was the previous game physically demanding? Does our No. 1 goalie usually recover well after a game? Do we want to play our best puck-handling goalie against a strong forechecking team?

The initial plan this season with Smith, who has dealt with injuries in the past, in part due to a heavy workload, was to decrease his starts to help him remain healthy throughout the season.  

Consecutive starts for Smith early in the season were designed to allow him to find consistency, but it took longer than expected.

Meanwhile, Rittich was solid each time he played, earning more frequent starts as a result.

Due to the urgency to collect points, I believe the coaching staff moved further from helping Smith find his game to using Rittich as the more in-form option.

Video: CGY@CAR: Rittich robs Williams with great pad save

Calgary (34-14-5) has 73 points and leads the Pacific Division by four points and the Western Conference by two points.

By mid-January, the transition to starter was obvious.

Smith started and played well in a 7-1 victory against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 13. With three days before the next game, against the Buffalo Sabres, the school of thought outside of Calgary was this was an opportunity for Smith to feel better about his game, get some recovery days and start at home against Buffalo.

Instead, Peters decided to play Rittich, who made 16 saves in a 4-3 overtime loss.

What went into the decision?

I can only speculate, but it may have been based on Calgary's previous game against Buffalo, a 2-1 overtime victory on Oct. 30 in which Rittich made 28 saves.

I can't imagine Smith being happy about sitting on Jan. 16. But as an experienced pro goalie, Smith knows he can reclaim the No. 1 role, through injury or performance.

Calgary is in a very demanding stretch. The Flames have played twice in February and have 11 games remaining this month, seven on the road. Given the travel and imbalance of home and road games, each goalie will be needed.

Internal competition within a team is quite healthy and it pushes individuals to surpass limits. However, a No 1 goalie who is slowly losing his spot needs to be dealt with carefully.

The goalie coach plays an important role in the process. Jordan Sigalet is Calgary's goalie coach.

A goalie coach's relationship with both goalies is key and needs to be based on trust and communication. He must show empathy and allow the frustrated goalie to vent. He must help him weather the storm and focus on controllable elements, such as improving upon small details in his game during increased practice time or healing the body and mind for a deep playoff run.

The most important thing is helping the goalie maintain a positive attitude.

Video: DET@CGY: Smith denies Larkin, snares puck

Rittich is the man for now. He has made the right saves -- and the big saves -- at the right times. He has been in this position before and must learn from past failures.

When Smith was injured last February, Rittich was the No. 1. At times, he faltered when the demands were much higher. Last season, a late-season fade had Calgary finish with 84 points, 11 behind the Colorado Avalanche, who earned the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

It appears this time is different. Rittich seems comfortable as the starter, so Smith must remain patient and positive.

Experience, as they say, is what you get when you don't get what you want.

You can never underestimate what the seemingly negative experience of last season is worth to Rittich now.

He needs to bring to the forefront the lessons learned from his struggles last season. Smith must focus on bringing his best game, and must draw on his own past experiences to be a warrior, not a worrier.

The Flames have depth and great chemistry. Their defense is playing so well that if they can survive the challenges of February, they are going to be more than OK for the postseason.

With condensed schedules, extended travel and frequent time-zone changes, teams can't get by with one goalie in the NHL today, in my opinion. We saw it last year with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, who used Philipp Grubauer early in the playoffs before returning to Braden Holtby.

Calgary will be no different this season. It will need Rittich and Smith to each be successful.

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