April 20, 2008: George W. Bush was still President of the United States, Iron Man hadn’t hit theaters yet, and Flo Rida and T-Pain wrote a power ballad about apple bottom jeans and #BootsWithTheFur.
Also that night, Dan Ellis led the Predators on the ice for Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Despite making 40 saves (which gave him 92 saves in a two-game span), Ellis took the loss in Nashville’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Detroit.
It would be the last time someone not named Pekka Rinne started a playoff game for the Nashville Predators.
That streak may end if they rally into the postseason this year.
Juuse Saros has arguably been the best non-Roman Josi Preds player over the past handful of weeks. His 31-save shutout against the Islanders last night is the latest highlight in his hot streak. Since the start of the new year, Saros is 5-2-1 with two shutouts and a .931 save percentage.
By contrast, Rinne is 4-6-0 with a save percentage of .898. (But also, one goal.)
Saros’s hot play hasn’t gone unnoticed by head coach John Hynes, who’s given Saros four of the past five starts. Many fans have taken this as a sign of the “changing of the guard” in net, some of which Hynes is downplaying.
I don’t know about [Saros taking over the starting role]. I think if you look at the Vegas game, Peks was probably our best player, and the team wasn’t very good. Then we gave the start to Juuse on the road, he played well and found a way to win. The road trip was a situation where he seemed like he was hot and feeling well so we stayed with him.
I think the Vancouver game [where Rinne was pulled after allowing four goals in 22 minutes]... I don’t think you can necessarily say Peks didn’t play well. There were some really bad bounces — off Johansen’s shin pad, one hit Hamhuis and went in, [one] bounced off three guys and went in — Unfortunately it wasn’t good for him. I’ve liked his game. I think he’s played well. And we’re going to need both guys to play well down the stretch with the amount of games we have.
There’s a lot of truth in Hynes’s response. This could be a simple case of deciding to ride the hot hand, not unlike what the Capitals did with Holtby and Grubauer leading up to their 2018 Stanley Cup win.
But when you look at the past month, Saros has been able to flip that always-discussed metaphorical “switch” in the second half of the season, while Rinne hasn’t.
Not all of that blame falls on Rinne, of course, something Hynes himself has been sure to emphasize. But Saros has done a better job of keeping the Predators in close games. Since the west coast trip, when he started getting the majority of the starts, Saros has faced at least 31 shots — and made at least 31 saves — in each start. He’s allowed two or fewer goals in each start with the exception of the Edmonton game, and, if you remember, that third goal came under shady circumstances.
It’s not just the volume of saves he’s making, it’s quality. His high-danger save percentage since the start of the month is right around 88.9%, a big improvement from the 76% he began the month with. That’s something the ol’ “eye test” confirms. Saros has improved his rebound control and positioning, which in turn is limiting those high-danger chances before they happen.
I get the sentiment from John Hynes. You don’t want to suddenly make headlines by “demoting” your starter of 12 seasons, someone who might be considered the best player in franchise history, and someone you — as Hynes said — still need solid performances from down the stretch.
That being said, Hynes’s actions have made it clear. Right now, in a stretch of the season where you need to be near-perfect, Juuse Saros is giving the Predators their best chance of winning.
It may not be a full “changing of the guard” just yet. But for now, the title of “starting goaltender” is Saros’s to lose. And nothing about his past several starts shows me any indication that’s going to happen.