Juuse Saros’s Big Night: What high-save performances have meant to past teams

What other goalies have turned in efforts as impressive as Saros’s?

Thursday night’s Nashville Predators game was one for the record books. On the road to a 5-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, Juuse Saros made 64 saves on 67 shots. In the process, he made the most saves in a single game by a goaltender in the NHL this season and entered the record books by setting the franchise record for saves in a regular season game, and tying for the third most saves in a regular-season game in NHL history.

Most Saves in a Single NHL Game

1Ron TuggnuttQuebec Nordiques03/21/1991 at BOSQUE: 3 @ BOS: 3 OT370730.959
2Mario LessardLos Angeles Kings03/24/1981 at MNSLAK: 4 @ MNS: 3365680.956
3Joe DaleyBuffalo Sabres12/10/1970 at BOSBUF: 2 @ BOS: 8864720.889
4Juuse SarosNashville Predators01/05/2023 at CARNSH: 5 @ CAR: 3364670.955
5Gump WorsleyMinnesota North Stars02/07/1971 at BOSMNS: 4 @ BOS: 4463670.940
6Allan BesterToronto Maple Leafs03/15/1984 at HFDTOR: 3 @ HFD: 5560650.923
7Mike RichterNew York Rangers01/31/1991 at VANNYR: 3 @ VAN: 3 OT359620.952
8Al RollinsChicago Blackhawks12/13/1956 at BOSCHI: 2 @ BOS: 3359620.952
9Wayne RutledgeLos Angeles Kings02/14/1970 at STLLAK: 1 @ STL: 2259610.967
10Ben ScrivensEdmonton Oilers01/29/2014 vs. SJSSJS: 0 @ EDM: 3059591.000

Looking at this list of the top 10 performances, some interesting patterns emerge. 90% of these goalies were on the road. 40% of the list (and 60% of the top 5) were played in a single arena (Boston Garden). This leads to interesting questions about the impact of home ice advantage on team defense and whether the undersized rink at Boston Garden—191’ by 83’ as compared to the modern standard of 200’ by 85’—had an impact on the number of shots on goal. Or perhaps the Boston Garden shot recorders over the course of 35 years were especially generous with counting the Bruins’ shots on goal.

But who do we see on this list? There are some familiar names. Mike Richter, of course, led the New York Rangers to their 1994 Stanley Cup and was taken by the Nashville Predators in the expansion draft, but never played a game for them. Al Rollins won both the Vezina and the Hart Trophies over the course of his NHL Career. But it’s a bit surprising how many goalies on this list are less well known. Who were these goaltenders, what were the circumstances of these outstanding individual performances and what—if anything—might the tell us about Juuse Saros and the 2023 Nashville Predators? To figure these things out, we need to dig back in history.

Number 5: Gump Worsley

1970-71 was the fourth season for the Minnesota North Stars. They had made the 8-team playoffs in three of the prior four years, but that was relatively meaningless, as the 1967 expansion had created two very unequal divisions. The very competitive East contained all the established teams, while the West was composed of the six much weaker new expansion teams. A reorganization of the divisions and the addition of the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks in 1970 had expanded the league to 14 teams and made making the playoffs much more difficult. On February 7th 1971, when Gump Worsley led his team onto the ice at Boston Garden, the North Stars were clinging to 4th place in the division, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins but holding the tiebreaker with one more win.

Worsley was almost 42 years old, but still a few years away from the end of his 22-year NHL career. He had already had an illustrious career, winning the Calder Memorial Trophy with the New York Rangers, and 2 Vezinas and 4 Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. However, he’d lost favor with the Canadiens’ coaching staff, who had decided to favor fellow future Hall of Famer Rogie Vachon, the prior year and had quit (or been suspended for failure to report to the Canadiens’ farm team).

Worsely had been lured back from retirement to play for the Minnesota North Stars in a goalie tandem and was playing in his first full season for them. The North Stars were last in the league in goals for, but they were hanging in the middle of the league thanks to their defense, and most importantly their quality goalie tandem who collectively sported a 0.910 Sv%—placing them 6th best in the league in goals allowed even though they were 9th in the league in SA/GP. And Worsley was no stranger to getting bombarded with shots. In his earlier years, he had played for teams who allowed many shots on goal and had performed admirably. Before the February 7th game he had already played in 50 games where there were 45 or more shots allowed and had averaged a .909 Sv% in such games.

The Boston Bruins at the other end of the ice were a powerhouse. Led by the likes of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito—who by March would break Bobby Hull’s record for goals in a single season—driving the offense, they would end the season with a 57-14-7 record. They averaged nearly 5 more shots per game than the second-place team in the league and to this day hold three of the top 11 spots in the record books for most shots on goal in a single game.

Minnesota went up 3-0 early, but the Bruins for their part put 67 shots on goal, including 10 from Esposito and 13 from Orr, to make a comeback and tie the game by the end of regulation. But Worsely’s 0.940 Sv% was the North Stars’ saving grace.

Number 3 (Tie): Joe Daley

Joe Daley played parts of only four seasons in the NHL. In 1970, Daley was playing as the backup to Roger Crozier, who won the Calder Trophy in 1965 and the Conn Smythe Trophy for the playoffs MVP in 1966—one of only 5 players ever given the award without winning the Cup. Crozier was the first goaltender in Buffalo Sabres franchise history, and the new expansion team had been pushing him hard. On December 10th when the team took the ice in Boston Garden, Cozier had played at least part of 22 of Buffalo’s 24 games that season—including both halves of three back-to-backs.

That night was Daley’s 3rd start of the season. At that time, Buffalo was the last-place team in the league with a record of 5-14-5 in 24 games. Daley himself had not played in a game in more than a month, having been lit up by the Montreal Canadiens on November 7th, allowing 11 goals on 54 shots—his only full game played.

Buffalo was defensively weak, allowing the most shots against in the league, 38.1 SA/GP. They were also offensively weak, taking 22.9 shots/GP themselves, also worst in the league, despite a lineup that included four-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Goyette and rookie center Gilbert Perrault, who would win that year’s Calder Memorial Trophy and go on to a Hall of Fame career, scoring 1,326 points in 1,191 career games with the Sabres.

This may be the only one of the top five that does not constitute an exceptional performance by the goaltender. The Boston Bruins at the other end of the ice were the same powerhouse team faced months later by Gump Worsley. Given free rein against a defensively weak Buffalo team, they put 72 shots on goal, the record for a regular season NHL game to this day. Daley allowed 8 goals—6 in the 3rd period alone—for a Sv% of .889, a bit worse than his season average. Essentially he was just there when his team collapsed in front of him, and he was shelled with the most shots on goal in a regulation NHL game in history.

Number 2: Mario Lessard

In the 1980-81 season, the NHL was a 21-team league—having incorporated four teams from the World Hockey Association the previous season—and 26-year-old Mario Lessard was the starting goaltender for the Los Angeles Kings. On March 24th when Lessard led his team onto the ice, the Kings were already playoff bound, having secured the second spot in the Norris Division. The Kings were on a four-game road swing through the middle of the continent that included two back-to-backs. They’d already completed the first back-to-back two days prior, tying Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers and beating the Winnipeg Jets. But tonight they were in Minnesota to take on the North Stars.

Led by Marcel Dionne—who had won the both the Art Ross (most points) and Ted Lindsay (League MVP) awards the prior season—and two other forwards on a more than point-per-game pace, the Kings were second in the league in goals per game, despite taking the second fewest shots. Lessard had been a workhorse for the Kings, having started 57 of their 74 games so far that season, and had been selected for the 2nd All-Star Team.

The North Stars just needed a couple more standings points to lock in their own playoff run. And perhaps it was that urgency that motivated them to more than double their average Shots/GP. Or perhaps it was just a late season surge by a team who was building momentum—they would go on to lose to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final. But Lessard was a match for them, turning in an .956 Sv%—far exceeding his season average of .893—and leading his team to victory.

Lessard would only play one more full season in the NHL, which culminated in the single biggest playoff comeback in history. The “Miracle on Manchester” against the Edmonton Oilers was, perhaps, the defining event of Lessard’s career. But this regular-season game against the North Stars perhaps foreshadowed that when Lessard held the North Stars in check while the Kings made a comeback from two goals down to end the second period with a 4-2 lead. The North Stars would get one goal back in the 3rd, but Lessard held the line to end the game in regulation 4-3.

Number 1: Ron Tugnutt

Ron Tugnutt holds the record for the most saves (70) in a single regular-season game (regulation or overtime), although 12 of his saves came in the overtime period—meaning he would not rank in the top 10 if we restricted our analysis to 60-minute performances.

On March 21st 1991, Tugnutt took to the ice in Boston Garden as the starting goaltender for the Quebec Nordiques. Alongside him were some legendary names in the game of hockey. Among the forwards was Guy Lafleur, skating in what would be the 6th-to-last game of his 17-year, 1,126-game NHL career. At nearly 40 years old, Lafleur still had a lethal shot, finishing that season with a 13.33 Sh%. Other teammates included Joe Sakic, in only the third season of his Hall of Fame career, and rookie Mats Sundin, another future Hall of Famer who would go on to be over a point-per-game player over the course of a 1,346 game NHL career.

But despite one current and two future Hall of Fame forwards on the ice—Lafleur had been inducted into the Hall in 1988, during his first retirement—the Nordiques were the Edmonton Oilers of the late 80’s and early 90’s, having picked 3rd, 1st, and 1st in the previous three drafts and were heading for the number one overall draft pick (Eric Lindros) again with a record of 14-48-12 (Wins-Losses-Ties) when they took the ice in Boston that night.

On the whole, Quebec was the worst defensive team in the league, allowing 4.43 G/GP on 35.8 SA/GP, and took the fewest shots per game (25.4) for the season as a whole. Tugnutt himself was at that time, in his fourth NHL season. He was perhaps an average goaltender on the season, ranking 24th in Sv% and 39th in GAA among the 40 goalies who played 20 or more games that season. However, he would on to play 14 more NHL seasons and his .925 Sv% in the 1998-99 season ties him with Dominik Hasek for the highest regular-season Sv% in Ottawa Senators history.

At the other end of the ice, the star-studded Boston Bruins were led by their captain, defender Ray Borque, in what would be his fourth Norris-Trophy-winning season in five years. Cam Neely led goal scoring on a team that included the likes of Dave Poulin and current Bruins GM Don Sweeney.

The Bruins were playoff bound, cruising toward the top spot in their division with a 41-23-11 record. An offensively minded team, the Bruins averaged 3.74 GF/GP on 31.4 shots, good for 5th in the 21-team league. But the 73 shots they took against Tugnutt that night were well outside their norm, ranking 55% higher than their second-highest-shooting game of the season.

Tugnutt’s performance was so impressive that, according to John Kreiser “Bruins star Cam Neely suggested Tugnutt take a bow in front of the Boston fans.”  But it also wasn’t a totally isolated perfomance.  Tugnutt had a 16-year NHL career and, nine seasons later, he would make 70 saves for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2000 playoffs, ultimately losing in 2-1 in the fifth overtime to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Number 3 (Tie): Juuse Saros

Juuse Saros’ performance against the Carolina Hurricanes was only this past week, so there are plenty of recaps and articles available, if you want to know what happened in the game. But what does the company he keeps in the record books tell us about him and the team he plays for?

The Nashville Predators of 2022-23 have had a disappointing season. Sitting outside the playoff picture, they had allowed 33.3 SA/GP even before their game against Carolina, in the  bottom quarter of the league. Carolina was the number 2 team in the league, who not only allows the fewest shots against per game but also takes the second most shots. So in some ways this game was similar to others on the list: a defensively weak team running into an offensive powerhouse and producing the perfect storm of shots on goal.

As far as Saros himself goes, his career is far from over. But looking at the goalies on this list there is a bit of a hodgepodge. Some are outstanding, others were just in the right place at the wrong time. So far, Saros looks a great deal more like a Gump Worsley than a Joe Daley. He’s already been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and, laying aside his lone game in the 2015-16 season, does not have a single season—starting or backup— with a save percentage below .914. I’m excited to watch where his career goes.