This weekend, the Calgary Flames will play on back to back nights for the 10th and final time against the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. This mark of 10 ties the Flames for the fewest number of back-to-backs in the NHL this season with the Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
On the flip side, the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers are tied for the most league-wide with 17 back-to-backs. The average is 12.9 among the 31 teams.
Playing on back-to-back nights is always tough for teams, not only because of the inevitable fatigue that sets in, but also because it forces both the starter and backup goalie to play (usually). As if winning both games wasn’t difficult enough, teams without a strong backup goaltender are hard pressed to come away with a full four points on a back-to-back.
The Flames’ goalies, Mike Smith and David Rittich, have almost perfectly split starts this season. Smith opened the season in the starter’s net but was surpassed by Rittich, who has supplanted the title of number one goalie and will likely start in game one of the playoffs. To date, Smith has started 37 games for the Flames and Rittich has started 40. Because of how lethal the Flames offence has been this year, they have had the luxury of confidently starting both goalies on their back-to-backs without majorly hurting their odds of winning.
Looking at how Bill Peters has chosen to deploy each netminder in back-to-back situations is interesting, and offers insight into which goalie will start which game this weekend.
Strength of Opponent
Each back-to-back for the Flames this season has featured two different teams. Note that stronger and weaker opponents were based on points percentage at the time of the back-to-back.
|Back-to-back||Stronger Opponent||Weaker Opponent|
For the most part, the difficultly level of the two teams has been clear.
Earlier in the season, the Flames turned to Smith to start against the tougher teams; Smith faced the tougher opponent in the first three back-to-backs. Since then, Smith and Rittich have alternated those tougher starts, a trend that is likely to continue this weekend where Rittich is the projected starter against the Sharks.
So far, the two goalies’ stats in back-to-backs in terms of strength of opponent breaks down like this:
Smith has received the tougher starts this season, and it will stay that way with just one back-to-back remaining on the schedule. However, in games against the tougher opponent, Rittich has allowed less goals and faced more shots against, resulting in a much higher save percentage. As well, the Flames scored fewer goals per game that Rittich was in net for, but still won two of three, as opposed to just three of six for Smith.
In games against the weaker opponent where Rittich has received the bulk of starts, a similar trend exists. Smith has allowed three times as many goals per game as Rittich, and though he faced more shots, Smith’s save percentage is significantly lower yet again. Both goalies have just one loss against the weaker opponent, the difference being Smith winning two of three games and Rittich winning five of six.
Front or Back Half
As with strength of competition, playing the front or back half of the back-to-back has its own challenges. There is always the worry that the team will struggle to maintain the same intensity in the second game, simply due to the tiredness and fatigue that sets in after playing two games so close together. At the same time, is it prudent to play a more conservative game on the front half to have more energy the following night?
This season, the Flames have had their goalies split starts in eight of their 10 back-to-backs. Rittich started both games in their fourth back-to-back against the Wild and Blues, but that was because an injury to Smith kept him out of the lineup.
Smith started both games in the Flames’ fifth back-to-back against the Red Wings and Bruins, but again, this was due to an injury to Rittich that prevented him from dressing. So far, the splits have been more even, with Smith starting five front half games and Rittich starting the other four.
The two goalies’ stats broken down by which half they started looks like this:
In the front half of back-to-backs, Smith has won all five of his starts. The Flames have scored a whopping 4.40 goals on average in those games, twice what Smith has allowed in the other net. Smith’s .925 SV% is also impressive in these games. Not to be outdone though, Rittich has posted better numbers than Smith, despite dropping one of his starts. Rittich has allowed an average of just one goal in the front half of back-to-backs, but has only received 2.25 in offense from the Flames. He has faced more shots than Smith, and has posted an incredible .966 SV%.
On the back half, things get messy for Smith. He has lost all four of his starts, allowed an average of more than three goals per game, and has a putrid .874 SV%. Rittich has won four of his five starts, allowed just 1.4 goals per game, and has an impressive .947 SV%. When the Flames are tired, as they would be on the back half of a back-to-back, Smith has been unable to provide good enough goaltending to get the win.
In the End
This weekend, it looks like the Flames will turn to Rittich against the Sharks, and then have Smith face the Kings the following night. If history is any indication, Rittich provides the Flames the best chance of winning in their first game, but it will be tough to secure two points on the back half.
The Flames have played well regardless of their schedule; hopefully they can take advantage of that as the season winds down, and important points are still up for grabs.