The second-round series between the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, the top two teams in the Western Conference, was supposed to deliver in every way imaginable, and when it comes to viewing pleasure, one can safely say there hasn’t been a series with quite as much excitement as the battle for the Central Division crown.
But while the Predators and Jets have played the first five games of this series with the expected amount speed, skill and physicality, not to mention an ever-growing dislike for one another, the one area this series has failed to deliver is between the pipes. Heading into the best-of-seven, we outlined a few matchups that were going of must-watch calibre in the second round, and chief among them was the tete-a-tete between two Vezina Trophy nominees: the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck and the Predators’ Pekka Rinne.
True to form, though, Hellebuyck has held up his end of the bargain in much the same way he has throughout the season. Sure, he’s dropped two games in the series, but he was excellent in his Game 4 loss, stopping 27 of the 29 shots that came his way, and he’s posted a .926 save percentage for the series. The same, however, can’t be said for Rinne, for whom the Winnipeg offense has been about all he can handle, particularly on three occasions in this series.
The first tough start for Rinne came in Game 1 when he was beaten three times on 16 shots though 40 minutes. That was good enough to end his night, too, but Rinne fought back with a stellar performance in Game 2 as the Jets ran roughshod over the Predators’ defense. Staring down 50 Winnipeg shots, Rinne stopped all but four to guide Nashville to a series-tying victory. The second tough night came in Game 3, another Predators loss, this one coming when the Jets reversed their early fortunes and pounded five goals past Rinne across the final two frames to pick up a victory. But no single game in this series has been as difficult for the Predators’ No. 1 netminder than Game 5, which saw Rinne beaten six times on 26 shots and yanked for the second time in the series, this time after about 46 minutes between the pipes.
Now, it’s worth noting that it’s awfully hard to pin the blame for all, or any, of those six goals on Rinne. The first came by way of a fortuitous Winnipeg ricocheted off of Paul Stastny’s glove, the second a netfront scramble and the third another scramble-turned-seeing-eye point blast from Dustin Byfuglien. The fourth was a nifty set up from Blake Wheeler, the fifth was a 2-on-1 in which Ryan Johansen was turnstiled by Kyle Connor and the sixth was another favorable Jets bounce — a puck off the glass that fooled everyone but set up Mathieu Perreault for what was basically an empty-net goal. True as it may be, though, that Rinne was hardly at fault, it doesn’t alter his .887 SP through this series, which is far lower than was expected from the Vezina favorite.
That, of course, is the bad news for the Predators. The good news, however, is that there are still two games left for Rinne to find his form, and his history suggests that he isn’t going to allow back-to-back games that get away from him that easily.
Let’s start first with back-to-back losses, of which Rinne had only four this season in 59 games. And after a loss, Rinne was especially sharp. Overall, he posted a rock-solid .927 SP, 2.31 goals-against average and eight shutouts this past season, but following a loss he managed a .934 SP and a 17-4 post-loss record.
If we go even further, though, Rinne has done well, too, to rebound from games in which he’s gotten the hook. While there’s not much data on it from this past season — because, well, Rinne played so well he was only pulled once — his career can help give us an idea how the Nashville netminder bounces back. While he has just a 19-19 record in games after he’s pulled, Rinne has managed a stellar .922 SP in those contests. And if we restrict it just to recent years, he looks much the same in battling back from a bad start. Over the past four seasons, he’s posted an 8-5 record his next time out after being pulled, and he has the same .922 SP in those contests.
To be sure, Rinne can’t be alone in providing a winning defense for Nashville in Game 6. That task falls equally on the defense, which was much more loose after a smothering Game 4 performance in Winnipeg. Adjusted for score and venue, the Jets won the shot attempts, scoring chances and high-danger chances battle at 5-on-5, and the Predators will need to be better if they’re to extend the series. But Rinne will be looked upon to be the last line of defense and his play will likely dictate what comes next for Nashville. That’s because for much of the post-season, and most certainly this entire series, as goes Rinne, so do the Predators.
Thus, heading into a potentially series- and season-deciding Game 6, Nashville is going to need Rinne to play like the soon-to-be Vezina winner that he is instead of the Vezina pretender that he has appeared to be. And bouncing back isn’t just going to be expected, it’s going to be required if the Predators want to see Game 7.
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