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Maple Leafs’ Rittich impresses under challenging circumstances

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TORONTO — It had been 20 years since an NHL goalie was acquired in a trade and made his first start with the new team against his old team.

So it’s safe to assume no one has ever experienced 48 hours quite like these.

David Rittich not only flew into the new city on a charter with his former Calgary Flames teammates, but he met most of the Toronto Maple Leafs just hours before playing behind them… in a game against Calgary.

Disorienting barely even begins to describe how that felt after 130 appearances in the flaming ‘C.’ There was enough time to apply some blue tape on the front of his pads, but you could still see the red on the back of them.

“[The strangest moment came] in the first period when I got scared of a player in a blue jersey,” said Rittich. “That was probably the weirdest thing that could happen to me.”

Big Save Dave played incredibly well under the circumstances, particularly when you factor in the nine days between starts with the uniqueness of the situation. He delivered a couple of key stops to help the Leafs secure a point before Johnny Gaudreau sealed a 3-2 Flames victory in overtime.

Sheldon Keefe offered him the chance to start with the Leafs completing a back-to-back and wanting to rest Jack Campbell. Rittich jumped at it. There isn’t the benefit of an easing-in period in a compacted season like this one, and we are bound to see a couple of other new Leafs thrust directly in the fire here soon following a busy trade deadline for Kyle Dubas.

Rittich managed to avoid quarantine by jumping directly from one Canadian bubble to another, which explains why it was worth enduring some friendly chirps while hitching a ride to Toronto with the Flames. He was acquired for a third-round pick on Sunday night, flew in Monday night and found himself getting snowed by Matthew Tkachuk here on Tuesday night.

“Obviously it was a tough one, right?” said Rittich. “I played against my old team where I was for four years and I’ve got some life friends there. So it was a tough one.

“The even worse thing of it is we lost in overtime.”

The Leafs still have a seven-point lead over Winnipeg in the North Division with 13 games to play. Assuming they maintain a comfortable advantage, Keefe seems inclined to make use of some newfound roster flexibility to get rest for veterans and find opportunities for others down the stretch.

On Tuesday that meant giving journeyman Scott Sabourin his Leafs debut in place of 37-year-old Jason Spezza, who is nursing some bumps and bruises. Perhaps there will be opportunities to spell off veterans like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds or Zach Bogosian for a game or two in the coming weeks.

“We’ll see how it goes,” said Keefe, not referencing any of those players directly. “We’ll take it a day and a game at a time, but that is my thinking, yes. Both our roster and salary cap situation are different here now so we think that’s going to present us some opportunities that we haven’t had up until this point.

“So, yeah, we will look to do that throughout.”

There were times earlier in the year when the Leafs couldn’t recall a player because of how it would impact their ability to manage the cap. Those issues dissipated when Fredrik Andersen was placed on long-term injured reserve over the weekend.

Soon Keefe will be flush with options, and he’s a coach that likes to use every resource at his disposal.

Nick Foligno and Ben Hutton have started serving seven-day quarantines in Toronto after being acquired in trades and are due to meet the team in Winnipeg next week. William Nylander is also expected to be cleared from the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol list in the coming days and could make the road trip as well.

There really isn’t time to carve out a specific niche for everyone before the games truly start to matter in the playoffs, so keeping an open mind is going to be important. In that way Rittich set an example at Scotiabank Arena during his Leafs debut, making a strong first impression under challenging conditions.

“I thought he looked really good in the net,” said Keefe. “I’m sure it’s a difficult night for him.”

“Loves to chat. Very talkative in the room early on and settling in nicely,” added captain John Tavares. “I mean that’s quite the circumstances in the last 48 hours for him.”

It’s an exciting time for Leafs new and old.

The message sent from Dubas during a busy trading period where he added without subtracting any regulars from the lineup reverberated through the dressing room.

“I mean it shows that we’re all in here,” said forward Alexander Kerfoot. “That they’re doing everything they can to prime us for a playoff run. We’ve just got to do our part.

“Obviously there’s nothing more management can do at this point, it’s all on us.”



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