Saturday, October 17, 2015

Left in One Batter Too Long: Karri Ramo's Night and NHL Career in a Nutshell

For eight and two-thirds innings on Friday night and in the hostile enemy territory known as the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Karri Ramo had essentially pitched a shutout.

Facing the potent attack of a talented Jets team playing in their home-opener, the game was tied 1-1 at that point with the one goal surrendered -- a harmless Blake Wheeler centring pass that deflected into the net off the skate of a tied-up Bryan Little -- the hockey equivalent of an unearned run.

Through the game's late innings with the score tied and the outcome already hanging in the balance, Ramo came through with a clutch performance not unlike what Marcus Stroman delivered for the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday. One-by-one in the third period, Ramo stared down Jets shooters and sent them back to the bench muttering to themselves.
  • 0:36 - Repels Andrew Ladd after he walks in alone and shoots from inside 10 feet.
  • 1:12 - Gets his pad on a Dustin Byfuglien slap shot through traffic.
  • 1:56 - Makes acrobatic stick save on Mark Scheifele after he burst through the slot.
  • 5:21 - Kicks out a Jacob Trouba slapper with his right pad. 
  • 6:14 - Denies Byfuglien again, this time on a backhand as he cuts hard to the net off the wing.
  • 8:03 - Squares up Nikolaj Ehlers nicely and takes his 30-foot slapper off the chest.
  • 8:58 - Kicks out a pad to deny Adam Lowry on a dangerous backhander from the slot.
  • 16:06 - Thwarts Mark Stuart on his quick one-timer from the blue-line.

"I felt good. They were pressuring us but I think I made some good saves," Ramo said on Saturday morning, reflecting back on the night before.

But as a goaltender, you're often judged on your last shot and on this night, the 12th shot of the period and 29th of the game, Ramo served up the winning run and it was an ugly one. With 88 ticks left on the clock, Byfuglien's long wrister from a bad angle beats Ramo on the short-side as inexplicably he doesn't get his pad against the post and has the puck bounce off him and in.

"Bad execution. I just made a bad play," Ramo admitted.

The fact is it's a bad goal to give up if you're an eight-year-old kid trying goaltender for the first time, never mind when you're being paid $3.8 million.

Just like that, game over on one swing of the stick. Ramo goes from Stroman to Drew Hutchinson in the snap of a finger.

"It's those small things that matter in a league where you need to win games and just by that one mistake, we lost the game. But it's past, you can't have it back now," said Ramo.

Three Mistakes for the Price of One

Of course, lost in the the fan outrage over Byfuglien's 'shot heard around Flames nation' was the build-up to it. Johnny Gaudreau coughing up the puck at the Jets blue-line to spring the Jets up the ice in the first place. Then Dennis Wideman, failing to extinguish the threat with what should have been a routine rub-out along the boards, instead allowing the four-foot-wide Byfuglien to dance past him untouched.

"We made three mistakes and I made the most crucial one," said Ramo. "But that's hockey and what goaltending is about. Every time I make a mistake, most likely it goes on the scoreboard."

It's also why as a parent of two kids that played minor hockey, I was relieved when neither chose to play that position.

When you're a forward and you blow it on your final shift, or you're a defenceman and you make a dreadful misplay, the judgement is always less severe. Maybe it's because there's no red light behind them that illuminates to remind everyone watching of their faux pas.

The challenge for Ramo is those errors are magnified when you're not playing a lot.

"Every goalie would like to play as much as they want and then those small mistakes become a little bit smaller because there's a lot of games but when you're not playing a lot, it takes on a little bit extra focus," he said. "Sometimes that turns out to be worse for you as you pressure yourself too much. But It's something we need to deal with. It's something I've needed to deal with many times in my career."

Maybe He Is What He Is

Coming into the 2015-16 season, a popular school of thought on Ramo and to be honest, one I subscribed to also, was that we just didn't know what he was quite yet.

Last season we saw lots of Dr. Jekyll, like when he made 58 saves in posting back-to-back road shutouts against the Sharks and Coyotes in November. But we also witnessed plenty of Mr. Hyde as was the case two weeks later when he gave up eight goals on 32 shots in consecutive starts against the Sabres and Rangers.

Well, two games into this season, it seems that maybe we do know what Ramo is after all. It's looking more and more like he's simply a guy, whose only consistency is his inconsistency and counting on the veteran to grow out of those bad goals or bad starts at this stage in his career will only drive one crazy.

There's no doubt about Ramo's tantalizing abilities, last night in Winnipeg was a perfect example. For 98 percent of the game he was excellent. He was poised, well-positioned, in control. For a guy known for his frequency to get caught 'swimming', his movements were more quiet and under control than what we're used to.

But when you're someone prone to taking one or two snowmen per round, or if you have a tendency to throw interceptions at the worst moment, it doesn't mean you're a good golfer or good quarterback that is inconsistent, it means you're just not a very good golfer or quarterback.

Same Old Concern

Goaltending was a lingering issue with this hockey club entering the season and 10 days in, nothing has changed. After two starts each, the only thing Ramo and Jonas Hiller have demonstrated is that it's unlikely either of the two pending unrestricted free agents will be back in a Flames uniform next season.

Make no mistake, goaltending is not the only reason Calgary has opened the season with three losses in its first four games. Consider this. Only twice last year did the Flames blow a first period lead and they've already matched that figure after four games. You can pin that one on the dozen skaters up front.

But the goal crease is the subject of growing fan discontent and while Hiller, 33, has the longer resume, more supporters and has been marginally the better of the two veterans so far, the guy most fans are pinning their hopes on at this point is Joni Ortio and surely the 24-year-old will get his opportunity in the near future.

Whether it's getting used to it, or just coming to peace with it, the bottom line is it appears goaltending will be the Flames achilles heel all season and if they do make it back to the playoffs, it's going to be despite their goaltending, not because of it.

Final Thought

The good news for a team that realistically is still in the rebuilding phase and a couple years away from being a legitimate Stanley Cup threat is there is help on the way. By the time Calgary matures into a team that should win, and is no longer in the could win mode they're in right now, the organization hopes college standout Jon Gillies will be ready.

But Gillies simply isn't there yet and as is the normal course for NCAA goaltenders, it could take a couple years of seasoning in the minors.

After a 19-save shutout in his pro debut a week ago, Gillies had his own case of the Ramo yips in game two on Thursday, surrendering a bad angle goal from near the goal line in a rough second period in which San Jose scored three times on 11 shots to break open a scoreless game.

But it's one thing for that to happen to a prospect in the AHL at age 21. Gillies' future is bright and he's still learning. When those moments continue to happen to a goaltender that is 29 years old and in the NHL, it becomes who they are.

If this really was baseball, even coach Bob Hartley would have come under scrutiny Friday for perhaps leaving Ramo in one batter too long. With Byfuglien, feared slugger at the plate, the smart move may have been to go to the team's closer. But to continue the analogy, it's the Flames lack of a closer or reliable arm that is at the heart of this entire discussion.

If the Flames are going to find themselves that dependable arm on the current staff, their best hope is Ortio and you'd expect Hartley will give him the ball soon and trot him out there. Heck, as long as he can keep the ball in the park and avoid giving up ill-timed home runs, that would go a long way because with Calgary's improved line-up in front of him, you know the run support will get better.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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