For the purposes of this preview, I’ve chosen to go with the likely goaltenders for the series. For the Nashville Predators, that will certainly be Juuse Saros. For the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s a little more nebulous. Both Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek have been stellar for Carolina this season, but Mrazek is still getting back into his groove after a broken hand earlier in the season.
It’s very clear that both netminders (with whoever is in net for Carolina) can be the x-factor for this series. Saros, Nedeljkovic, and Mrazek were all very, very hot in the last part of this abbreviated season.
A rough start for Mrazek or Nedeljkovic could force the Hurricanes coaching staff to modify their setup. It’s less clear for Nashville. If Saros falters, does Nashville really escape Round 1 on the back of longtime workhorse Pekka Rinne?
Juuse Saros has the ability to steal this series for the Predators. Bryan hooked me up with his chart—see below.
In 34 starts for Nashville, Saros posted a very nice .927 Sv%. However, we know the real story is Saros’s game after returning from a likely concussion in February-March (courtesy of a Hurricanes player).
Saros has “dialed in” his play lately, returning to his technically solid foundation. His edgework remains one of the strongest elements of his game, but he finds ways to make desperation saves with his smaller frame. He’s very likely to get beat under one of his arms as he shifts from post to post, but when he’s able to remain square to the puck, Saros always finds a way to make a save.
Furthermore, his rebound control seems to have improved significantly in the last year or so...his rebound control was one of my main criticisms previously. Check out these clips below that detail how Saros uses his edges:
It’s clear that Saros has taken over the “starting netminder” role from Pekka Rinne, but Rinne still has a little game left in him. Saros has to prove his worth in the playoffs after last summer’s flop against the Arizona Coyotes in the qualifying round.
The Predators believe that Saros should be a dark-horse Vezina contender this season. Brooke Bratten from the Predators media corps wrote this piece about how Saros should be in consideration for the Vezina Trophy. If Saros performs as well next season (over an 82-game season) like he did in the second half of 2020-2021, he should certainly be a Vezina finalist.
Analyst Brian Boucher said this about Saros:
“Saros has got the experience, he’s been around the team for a long time, and I’ve always thought he was a good goalie. Smart guy. He reads plays really well. He gets to the puck quickly and on time. He’s very rarely late. The lack of big east-west plays speaks to his talent level. He’s got good skating ability in the crease, which allows him to get to his spots even though he’s not the size of a Pekka Rinne (6-5). And now, finally, he’s really got the opportunity to have the keys.”
In short, Saros needs to be bulletproof and ironclad in Round 1. The Nashville defense should be doing everything to protect their netminder.
The young Nedeljkovic played in 23 games for Carolina this season, posting a .932 Sv%. Nedeljkovic carried the Hurricanes through a period of instability in net after Petr Mrazek suffered a broken hand.
Nedeljkovic is just 25 and has established himself as a long-term option in net for the Hurricanes. His performance in net cannot be underestimated—writer Sara Civian for The Athletic reminds us that Nedeljkovic could be the second coming of Cam Ward, who won the Conn Smythe in 2006 as a rookie! If Mrazek struggles, I could see Nedeljkovic stealing games for the Hurricanes.
While not much bigger than Juuse Saros, Nedeljkovic possesses a quickness that is increasingly common in smaller netminders. Check out this incredible save from a Carolina-Florida game just a few weeks ago:
I feel that the 29-year old Mrazek will be Carolina’s starter tonight, but as I mention above, both Mrazek or Nedeljkovic could be a viable option for the Hurricanes. Mrazek played in just 12 contests for the Canes this season, putting up a .923 Sv% but a very intriguing 2.06 GAA.
Mrazek was very solid for the Hurricanes after his return from injury. He won a very nice game for the combined Predators-Hurricanes AHL conglomerate, the Chicago Wolves. Mrazek has 27 games of playoff experience, including some time back in 2015 with Detroit. He played in 5 games in last summer’s shortened playoffs.
Once again, Bryan hooked me up with Mrazek’s charts. His sample size is smaller than Nedeljkovic’s or Saros’s, but the 6’ 1” netminder really only struggles with high-glove shots or those that sneak in over his shoulder.
The Hurricanes have a 1A/1B goaltending situation here. It’s not exactly clear how they’ll manage Nedeljkovic and Mrazek in Round 1 or beyond, but either goaltender could be the answer for a heavily-favorited Carolina squad. The goaltender decision could also hang on the availability of Carolina’s defenderd.
Author’s note: Full disclosure—I will be a Hurricanes fan for the remainder of their time in the playoffs IF they win Round 1 against Nashville. The Hurricanes are no longer a “happy go lucky” underdog squad. They have talent in both the forward and defense positions, and as I note above, both Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic could be “The Guy” for Carolina in net.