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Flames left with tough call between Talbot, Rittich as starter vs. Jets

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers exchanged plenty of words between whistles Tuesday night.

That chatter will pale in comparison to the chin-wagging to be done by Flames brass who must now huddle up to decide on Saturday’s starting goalie against the Winnipeg Jets.

While it’s possible the Oilers’ 4-1 exhibition win over the Flames solidified Mikko Koskinen as the team’s qualifying round starter, there was no such crystallization for the Flames.

Entering the lone exhibition game with Cam Talbot holding the slight edge through camp, the 32-year-old veteran stopped 19 of 21 shots in an opening 30 minutes largely dominated by the Rogers Place hosts.

Talbot was replaced by David Rittich midway through, just as the Flames started to dictate more of the play.

Two late goals on Rittich put the game out of reach and left him with seven saves on nine shots.

While interim coach Geoff Ward said he was happy with many things he saw, the coaches and management have a tough decision to make at the most important position.

Is now the time for Rittich to make his NHL playoff debut?

Or do they go with Talbot, who has 15 post-season assignments on his resume?

“We haven’t made up our mind yet,” said Flames interim coach Geoff Ward, when asked if the exercise helped decide the biggest question the team has faced throughout camp.

“Obviously, the nice thing is we have an off day (Wednesday) and we can take some time to look at it. The puzzle is starting to become more clear, and we’re at the point we’re going to have to sit down and make a decision. We want to do our proper diligence and we want to sit down and take a proper look at it. By Friday we’ll know.”

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Rittich’s otherwise quiet outing was interrupted late in the evening when a high dump in by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took a wild bounce in front that required a kick save instantly whacked in by Patrick Russell.

Thirty-three seconds later, McDavid streaked in alone to Rittich’s left and after selling a cross pass the whole way he threw a no-look snipe through Rittich’s legs.

The debate rolls on.

Entering the game with hopes of generating momentum and confidence with something approaching playoff intensity, the Flames opened up on their heels the first 20 minutes.

Despite a handful of hits from Matthew Tkachuk to try setting the tone, the Flames fell behind 2-0 thanks to goals from Kailer Yamamoto (64 seconds in) and McDavid.

Tough to blame Talbot on either.

Yamamoto’s came on a rebound following a great save by the Flames goalie, who sprawled in vain to snag the youngster’s knuckler destined for the top shelf.

McDavid’s power-play finish came while he stood net-side, easily depositing a great pass from Leon Draisaitl past a sprawling Talbot.

Elias Lindholm got the fake crowd noise going with four seconds left in the third, after showing great patience to collect the puck in tight and lift it over Mike Smith.

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“That was huge,” said Lindholm of his goal, his sixth in five outings against Edmonton this season.

“The first period Edmonton was way better than us, the second period we were the better team. After one game here, we’re going to be ready to go on Saturday.”

Other standouts for the Flames included Dillon Dube and Sam Bennett, who were both actively engaged through the evening, combining on a stellar 2-on-1 at one point that saw Smith rob Bennett.

“We had a bit of a slow start, but in the second and third we dominated the game …and we all feel ready for the real thing to get started,” said Bennett.

“Once the game is going on you don’t even notice there are no fans and you’re in the heat of the game. It’s nice to hear your teammates more than you normally would.”

The real emotional leaders in the game were the two men who single-handedly reignited the Battle of Alberta earlier in the year: Tkachuk and Zack Kassian.

Tkachuk drew the ire of both Oilers goalies with plenty of shifts in the blue paint, including one that quite likely would have negated Lindholm’s goal had the Oilers challenged it.

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Tkachuk also drew a penalty on James Neal who slashed his former teammate in the back, drawing more post-whistle discussions.

Kassian lowered the boom on Erik Gustafsson along the boards with the hit of the game, temporarily knocking the Flames power-play quarterback from the tilt.

TJ Brodie was the Flames best defender, keeping McDavid at bay throughout the evening with several stellar plays, and was later robbed by Smith with a shot destined for the top corner.

“Everything we wanted to see tonight we saw from them,” said an upbeat Ward.

“We started slow but got better as the game went on. I thought our guys gave a real good accounting for ourselves. On another night we could have pulled into the lead, but their goalie made big stops. I think we need to feel good about what we saw tonight. I think the pace was really good and the intensity and there were some hits on both sides. We didn’t get the win but there’s things we can take out of it we feel good about.”

The Flames have Wednesday off and will watch the Jets play the Vancouver Canucks after their team dinner.

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