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Flames await news on Smith without comfortable backup options

CALGARY – The last time Mike Smith got injured, it led to the ultimate undoing of the Calgary Flames.

Surely the team’s playoff fate doesn’t hang on his health status like it did last year.

We may be about to find out.

Smith was evaluated by doctors Thursday after the 36-year-old essentially pulled himself from Wednesday’s dramatic overtime win over Philadelphia.

Coach Bill Peters was informed late in the second intermission of Thursday’s wild comeback that Smith “wasn’t right” and needed to be replaced by David Rittich.

Smith didn’t return to the bench for the third, nor was he made available after the game.

Team brass was tight-lipped Thursday, but a source familiar with the situation said early indications suggest Smith’s injury isn’t serious.

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He said more would be known Friday, a sentiment echoed by GM Brad Treliving.

The assumption is Smith tweaked something in his mid-section as he did last February, but it’s hard to say.

On Wednesday there was a collision with Rasmus Andersson in the second period that sent Smith flying into his net, which could have done the damage.

Or perhaps the awkward fourth goal he let in – the only questionable one of the night on him – caused an injury as he folded awkwardly while trying in vain to stop Dale Weise’s long shot.

Smith missed the drama that punctuated the Flames’ 6-5 overtime win, and the team is bracing for the possibility he may miss more going forward.

The Flames were given the day off Thursday and Smith was one of the only players who did not attend the Flames annual wheelchair hockey game at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

He’s not the type of person who would typically miss something like that without extenuating circumstances.

There was no announcement of a call-up to replace Smith, but that would generally be announced early Friday, once the farmhand arrives for practice.

That’s where things get scary, as it’s the one position the Flames aren’t deep in.

Pre-season standout Tyler Parsons is still injured, so the two options in Stockton include Jon Gillies and Nick Schneider.

The 24-year-old Gilllies has struggled to a 5-8-1 record with a 3.96 goals-against average and horrific .861 save percentage.

He got 11 of his 12 games of NHL experience here last year during Smith’s injury, going 3-5-1 with a 2.88 GAA while the team fell from the playoff perch Smith put them in as a first-half all-star.

After joining the Flames in China the 21-year-old Schneider started this season in the East Coast league before the Parsons injury saw him promoted.

The former Calgary Hitmen starter has been good in the AHL where he is 6-2 with a 2.66 GAA and .915 save percentage. He has yet to make his NHL debut.

The plan certainly wouldn’t be for either one to get much NHL work in if their promotion was a short one.

Rittich can handle the three games in four nights starting in Minnesota Saturday.

However, if Smith’s injury lasts upwards of a month like it did last year, Rittich will clearly have to be spelled off at times.

Undoubtedly management, teammates and the fans are more optimistic the 26-year-old Czech character is capable of faring far better as a starter this year than last when he was a raw rookie.

After all, many have been clamoring for him to be anointed the starter throughout the young season.

He’s certainly earned that chance.

Still, skeptics will point to how dramatically his game turned last year once starting responsibilities were dumped on his shoulders.

Even he admitted he didn’t handle that pressure well, but vowed to learn from it.

Not surprisingly, the happy-go-lucky netminder says the key is having fun, and keeping it light.

That should be easier in a dressing room full of youth and a winning spirit that makes it as loose an environment as the Dome has seen in decades.

With a 9-3-1 record this year and 2.31 GAA to match, Rittich has passed almost every test thrown his way, including a game-saving stop on Ivan Provorov who barrelled in alone on the Flames net mere seconds into overtime Wednesday, setting the stage for Johnny Gaudreau’s emotional winner.

Clearly the coach has no problem handing the reins to Rittich – he did as much last Sunday when he gave Rittich the start in Edmonton for what was then the biggest game of the year.

He responded well, as he has all season.

Just like last year, the timing of Smith’s latest setback is less than ideal.

It was Feb. 11 when Smith was mere seconds away from capping a 9-3 stretch in Brooklyn when he pulled something in his mid-section.

When he returned a month later, Rittich and Gillies had faltered, the team was decimated by injuries and his return only seemed to make things worse.

This year Smith seemed to have overcome his early confidence issues with six wins in a row and was solid Thursday outside of the long shot he whiffed on by Weise.

Only an injury or illness was going to prevent the 36-year-old from fighting back for a win.

After the bad goal, a Bronx cheer following a save on a 150-foot shot prompted him to seemingly acknowledge the crowd by holding up his arm and stick following their reaction.

He’s been the subject of endless debate for two seasons now.

It has to be good news that Smith’s ailment was such that he hoped trainers could help him work through it in the intermission before finally alerting Rittich he was going in with three minutes left in the break.

We’ll know more Friday when the Flames practice before jetting off to Minnesota.

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