One of the biggest questions about Nashville, especially so over the last couple of seasons, has been goaltending. Could the Predators make it over the hump of the second round, and perhaps all the way, behind Pekka Rinne?
After a spectacular performance in the 2010-11 season, posting a career-best 2.12 goals-against-average and 0.930 save percentage, Rinne saw his number steadily slip over the next two seasons before being sidelined by hip surgery in the summer of 2013. While he was held to only 24 games during the 2013-14 campaign, he bounced back with his second, and last, 40-win season in 2014-15, posting a 2.18 goals-against-average and 0.920 save percentage respectively.
Last season, though, his stats again began to decline again.
Albeit winning 30-plus games for the fifth time in his career, some were left to wonder on any given night which goaltender they would see: the elite Rinne from a seemingly foregone era or an aging Rinne that left a giant question mark in net?
He’s not a spring chicken anymore. Rinne turned 34 two weeks ago and it’s not unusual to see this type of decline from goaltenders in their mid-30s. Interestingly enough, however, whatever “decline” Rinne was in, it’s all but turned around. With 13 games under his belt this season, Rinne’s posted a 6-4-3 record with a 2.04 goals-against-average and 0.933 save percentage – both marks setting a career-best pace.
And who’s to say this isn't sustainable? Granted, you’re going to see a bad night here and there from the Finnish backstopper, but what he’s done lately has been remarkable. In his last seven games, he’s brought in a 5-0-2 record, a 1.12 goals-against-average, a 0.960 save percentage and a shutout against Anaheim last Saturday night. That could possibly be one of the greatest seven-game stretches of Rinne’s career. There are no signs of slowing down.
What really draws my attention, though, are some of the underlying stats behind Rinne – his low- and medium-danger save percentages. While Rinne’s high-danger save percentage – those goals that are allowed in the slot, low slot and crease – has always been a question mark for him, both his low and medium-danger goals allowed haven’t seen the greatest of numbers over the last few seasons.
Medium-danger goals are exactly what you would expect: chances from in-between the face-off dots through the high slot and back to the blue line. Low-danger goals would be those allowed from the outside points, outside the face-off dots, parallel and behind the net. (For a good explanation of low, medium and high-danger areas and scoring, check out this article from the recently-defunct War-On-Ice.)
Since the 2010-11 season, Rinne’s medium-danger save percentage, often where most quality scoring chances are placed on the net, hovered around 92 percent – where mid-93 percent and above are where some of the best goalies in the NHL hang around.
The same goes for low-danger save percentages. Where goalies like Henrik Lundqvist stopped 99.07 percent last season and Corey Crawford, Tuukka Rask, Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo and Craig Anderson, to name a few, where all over 98 percent, Rinne stumbled to 97.45 percent – his lowest low-danger save percentage of his career. Only 11 goaltenders who played 35 or more games last season had a worse low-danger save percentage last season. Remember all those goals that came off bad angles, behind the net and alongside the boards that Rinne allowed last year? All low-danger.
Through his 13 games this season, Rinne is fourth in both low- (98.80) and medium-danger (95.24) save percentages across the league among goaltenders with 10 or more games played. This is a marked improvement from the last handful of seasons and on pace to be one of the best seasons of his career.
Outside of the Tuesday night stumble against the Maple Leafs, Nashville’s shooting and save percentage have both been through the roof over the past eight games. There will be a drop-off at some point, but Rinne’s efforts so far this season not only prove that he’s a capable goaltender to lead the Predators, but shows that he can still produce at an elite level.
If Rinne’s back to what we’ve seen in the past, there’s no telling how far the Predators can go this year. Maybe even parading down Broadway in the middle of June.