VANCOUVER – After shaky starts to the Stanley Cup playoffs, goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Pekka Rinne seem to have returned to their stingy selves.
Luongo made 20 saves Thursday to backstop the Vancouver Canucks to a 1-0 win over the Nashville Predators in the opening game of their Western Conference semifinal.
At the other end, a busier Rinne made several spectacular stops to give his team a chance to win as Nashville was outshot 26-11 in the first two periods.
“He was unbelievable,” teammate Mike Fisher said of Rinne, who like Luongo is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the award that goes to the league’s top goalie. “On their goal, he almost made the save there too.
“That’s what we’re kind of accustomed to and hopefully we won’t have to rely on him as much on Saturday.”
That’s when the best-of-seven series will continue before shifting to Nashville on Tuesday and Thursday.
It could be a low-scoring match-up as the two clubs combined for only 14 goals in four regular-season games.
Both goalies entered this series after sub-par performances in opening-round wins.
Rinne ranked second in save percentage (.930) and goals-against average (2.12) in the regular season, setting club records in the process.
It was a different story against the Anaheim Ducks where the Finn had a tepid .876 save percentage while allowing one more goal a game than his season average.
But he was his usual self in Game 1 against Vancouver.
“It just felt good,” Rinne said. “It was a fun game to play and a fun building to play in and a fun team to play against.”
The only puck to get behind him came off the stick of Vancouver winger Chris Higgins who broke over the blue-line with Maxim Lapierre on an odd-man rush.
“They got a 3-on-1 in front of the net,” Rinne said. “Lapierre made a good pass to Higgins and he was able to bury it. I got a piece of it but … .”
The puck deflected up and just under the crossbar.
Luongo had a 2.11 goals-against average during the regular season, the best of his career, and the Canucks led the NHL with fewest goals against.
His first round was different, too. Coach Alain Vigneault lifted him from two blowout losses against the Chicago Blackhawks, where he game up 10 goals on 40 shots. Vigneault even benched him at the start of Game 6, going with backup Cory Schneider instead.
But Luongo came back with a 2-1 overtime win in the pressure-packed seventh game of that series and recorded his second shutout of this post-season against Nashville.
In the first period, Rinne got a blocker on a Henrik Sedin shot headed for just inside the far post.
In the second, he blocked Keith Ballard’s shot off the rush then fell back on the Canuck defenceman’s attempt to bury the rebound on the backhand, covering the puck with his six-foot-five, 207-pound frame.
“If you look at his stats through the season, he’s a great goalie,” Sedin said. “He’s got a team in front of him that played tight.”
Kevin Bieksa, robbed by Rinne when he deflected Sedin’s shot on net, said his 29-save performance was expected.
“He’s one of the marquee goalies in the league,” Bieksa said. “To beat him you are going to need traffic, you are going to need guys all around him.”
One of Luongo’s biggest tests came when Fisher got a partial breakaway after Higgins and Bieksa became entangled at the Nashville blue-line on a Canuck power play.
“I had to reach back for the puck,” Fisher said. “It was kind of a bad shot.”
One of the Canuck netminder’s biggest challenges was staying focused, especially in the opening 40 minutes.
“I wasn’t seeing much action so I as trying to get involved as much as I could, as far as playing the puck and talking on the ice, feeling involved in the play.” Luongo said.
“I got a couple of shots early in the third and was able to settle in.”
Notes: Rinne and Luongo will be up against Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins in voting for the Vezina. …The Canucks began the series leading all 16 playoff teams with an average of 18.3 penalty minutes a game … the Predators had the worst penalty kill, giving up eight goals in their six-game elimination of the Anaheim Ducks … both teams were 0-for-5 on the power play … Patric Hornqvist took three of the Predators’five penalties.