Last season, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz had the luxury of going to the whip hand with his thoroughbred goalie Pekka Rinne — without the fear of wearing him out.
In the early going, as his young team struggled to jell, Trotz rode Rinne hard to keep the Predators afloat. Late in the season, when he sensed that home-ice advantage for the Stanley Cup playoffs would be crucial – as it was in a first-round series victory over longtime nemesis Detroit – the veteran coach didn’t shy away from playing his goalie too frequently.
Rinne played in nine of the final 10 regular season games, making starts on back-to-back nights twice in that period and winning three of the four.
For the second time in two seasons, Rinne was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, leading NHL goalies in wins last year (43). He ended up playing in 89 percent of the Predators’ games then leading the league in games with 73 (a franchise record).
Suffice it to say that in this 48-game season, with its compacted schedule, a similar strategy could be risky — not only for the Predators but for almost any team in the league, especially if they want their No. 1 goalie fresh for the playoffs.
Enter the Predators’ old-new backup goalie, Chris Mason, who delivered a 3-1 road victory against the beefed-up Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. Mason made 29 saves and was named the game’s first star to earn the Preds’ first win of the season.
Mason told FOXSportsTennessee.com that teams will benefit this season from backup goalies who can contribute.
“I think it’s important, obviously,” he said. “I think it’s a nice option for the coach to be able to rest their guy and not feel like they’re giving a game away, and that’s kind of what my focus is this year . . . to be ready all the time and give the guys good goaltending when Pekka’s not in there — just so they’re not reluctant to do that and burn some of the guys out that are playing.
“If someone plays 42 games in a condensed season, it’s going to be tough on guys,” said Mason. “I think it’s definitely going to be a nice option for coaches to have if their second guy is able to step in and play well.”
By signing a one-year deal with Nashville, Mason, who will be 37 before the season ends, is in his fourth city in four years: St. Louis, Atlanta, the franchise’s move to Winnipeg and now Nashville. He chose Nashville in part because of its record of playoff success – the team has advanced to the second round in each of the last two seasons – and he wanted to be a part of that.
But it also helped that he had such familiarity with Nashville’s organization. On and off, he was with the Preds from 1998-2008 and still owns a home in Nashville. Ironically, it’s rented and he and his wife had to rent another, but, knowing the area, he knew where to find a good school district for his daughter, who began first grade in the fall.
Mason knows the coaching staff, training staff and roughly half the players — including Rinne.
If that translates into performances like Tuesday’s, both he and the Preds stand to benefit. They have games on back-to-back nights nine times this season — or 37.5 percent of their schedule.
In addition, teams will play only within their conference this season and being one of the Eastern-most teams in the Western Conference, the Preds will slog through plenty of travel. Mason noted the condensed schedule has teams “playing every second night and flying all over the country.”
If Mason can spell Rinne, the big Finn might have more “jump” for the playoffs, which Mason has not experienced since 2009. He was “extremely happy” with his performance on Tuesday, which occurred in Nashville’s first game against former teammate Ryan Suter.
“Yesterday, I was nervous just because I hadn’t played a game in eight months and the implications of every game seem to be pretty big this season with the shortened season,” Mason said. “So it was great to get in there and help the team get some points.
“That’s my job to get in and play those games and not just to give Peks a break, but to also try to get points and the guys played a great game in front of me, too.”