So I've been doing a bit of lurking and thought I'd post this here. I'm a Leafs fan for as long as I can remember having grown up in NW Ohio getting CBC's feed out of Windsor. Having played goal for about 15 years and attending a few camps put on by the wonderful Mitch Korn when I was younger, I have a small personal connection to the Predators. So I've always been supportive of the franchise even if that hasn't manifested itself in dressing in yellow and hurling catfish... [Even though I secretly hope that Brian Burke lets Francois Allaire go and makes a run at Mitch Korn...just kidding... maybe not...haha]
Since I've been reading a few stats-based previews of the goalies for this series, I've come away a bit unsatisfied with their conclusions: "Both goalies have great numbers, but can Smith continue this season where he is performing above his career average...", "can Rinne withstand the onslaught of shots that he faces because Nashville gives up too many shots..." and "There's a statistical anomaly that Nashville beat Detroit...." I don't know about you, but this doesn't tell me a great deal about either goalie. So come with me as I look at the styles of Rinne and Smith and identify their key differences before offering some hope that the Predators can exploit tendencies in Smith's game. If I'm doing this with a few hours of highlights and reading some articles, you can be sure that the coaching staff has done this and more!
Two-time Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne may have been the most underrated goalie in the league playing in Nashville until the Coyotes picked up Smith this summer, and a stellar performance against the Red Wings in round one on national TV. Big and lanky at 6'5", Rinne possesses probably the most active and energetic style in the NHL today. He is never out of a play: the desperation saves are less about being out of position, and more never giving up on a puck. One would be forgiven to think that Dominik Hasek just gained 5 inches and some youth and donned a Predators' jersey, which would be forgiven as Korn is a connecting thread as the goalie coach to both of these amazing read and react goalies.
For Rinne, one will notice that despite being one inch taller than Smith, he is far more aggressive in his positioning than Smith is. Rinne will come out about 3-4 feet outside of his crease and back in with the play as it enters the zone. Additionally, Rinne likes to be at the top of his crease for point shots as it puts him right behind screens and tips. This means that there are many highlight reel saves from Rinne just because of this positioning as he has to stretch back to the net for rebounds and loose pucks if they get to the side of the slot.
Rinne also possesses the best glove in the NHL. Smith's is good, but Rinne is better. He also is one of the few goalies who will actively catch the puck anywhere. This goes a long way to reducing rebounds, both in front of him and on shots from the left wing to the far side as Rinne can pick those up so rebounds aren't kicked out right to the slot. As many have written, this is one key way he limits the quality of rebound chances and the pressure on his defense.
Mike Smith is finally realizing the potential that made him the cornerstone in the trade that brought Brad Richards to Dallas in 2006. 6'4" and highly mobile in the defensive zone playing the puck (Marty Turco's influence during his time in Dallas), Smith has finally blossomed into a bona fide number 1 keeper in Phoenix. Credit to Sean Burke's knowledge and system (Benoit Allaire's time in Phoenix with Burke shows here before Allaire moved on to the Rangers) that encouraged Smith to use his size to his advantage, something that is easy to overlook in the style of hockey played today - simple and comfortable is usually best for all goalies.
Smith has taken advantage of the size, while still allowing his reactions on plays to shine through. Rarely will he ever come outside of the crease as long as the rush is even. This means that while he loses the initial angle on the shooter, he has far less distance to travel for any passes. Additionally, Smith is likely to sit a foot or so deeper in his crease than most goalies on shots when the opposition has possession. Again, unlike Rinne, he prefers to give up a bit of the angle to the shooter in exchange for his size to cover parts of the net against tips. Smith also avoids any physical challenge from skaters in front of him to stop puck or make his initial movement towards rebounds.
The tactics Nashville used against Detroit will likely not work as well this round because of Smith's puck handling and his size. The Predators exploited Jimmy Howard's inability to regain his angle on plays from the corner and behind the net to perfection in the first series. Half a dozen goals (or so) were scored that way, something that is down to great preparation work by the coaching staff and the players to execute it. Smith can cover for these mistakes in two ways. First, he is a far better puck handler than Howard and Rinne, so expect him to be very active behind the net to relieve some of the forechecking pressure on the defense. Second, his style of play isn't built on requiring depth to cut the angles down on these plays, so he's quite comfortable taking away the net without coming off the goal line.
So how does one go about putting the puck in the net behind Smith? Well, fortunately he's not quite a brick wall. There are a few key areas of his game that the Predators can exploit. This goes beyond the typical 12" off the ice, over the pad blocker side and above the glove hand shoulder, right by the ear - the two areas that all goalies will struggle with.
First, for a big goalie, Smith's arms are incredibly tight to his body. He keeps his arms tight to his body to eliminate goals that go through him while daring the shooter to hit the spots on the outside without missing the net. On quick shots and plays where the shooter has time, look for them to shoot to the far side to try to exploit this tendency. This is also something that Chicago was able to exploit in a few of their games, both from shots (game 2 and game 5 OT winners spring to mind) and with tips and deflections from the mid-slot range. This gives the puck time to make the angles work for the deflection, so you might see some double screens (low man for vision and the rebound, high man for the deflection) employed to take advantage of this tendency.
Second, Smith prefers to keep his body square to the centre of the ice on plays in the corners. Additionally, he drops into the "Vertical/Horizontal" save selection early (one leg upright on the post, the other on the ice to speed up net coverage on any play to the middle of the ice). What this does though, is open up room above the shoulders to shots on these bad angles. Yes, there is room over a 6'4" goalie's shoulders. They might take a sniper to hit them, but I hear that you might have a few in the line up now, eh? In addition, any plays on the side of the net is likely to have Smith not square to the puck as he keeps his upper body facing centre ice. Here is where one might see some comparisons to Roberto Luongo in Vancouver in that both guys do not rotate their body completely with the play (something Rinne does), and so the largest blocking area of any goalie isn't fully positioned to stop the puck. When Smith plays like this, there are holes behind him to put the puck. Again, a hard shot to hit, but do not think that it is not possible.
Third, Smith had a bit of trouble against the Blackhawks with loose pucks in traffic. He tended to lose pucks in the scrambles and a goal or two were put home because of this. This isn't to say that one should expect this trend to continue, but that the Predators might be able to get a few greasy goals by jumping on rebounds and putting them in top shelf, or taking advantage of plays to the backdoor in scrambles. Smith has a tendency to look a bit less mobile than Rinne in scramble mode so you might see the Predators trying to find guys to the side of piles to take advantage of this possible weakness in Smith's game.
I think that both goalies are playing some of their best hockey now, but it should be less about who will crack first, and more about which team is able to exploit the nuances of the opposing goalie's game to the best advantage. As a goalie, it should come as no surprise that I enjoy a the tight games and seeing goalies make a difference. I hope that you've found this informative and enjoyable, if you've managed to stick through the 1500+ words. I can remember the insanity of the Leafs deep playoff runs in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, so hope you all enjoy this run that the Predators are on!