NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators know only too well how good a goaltender Juuse Saros is after trying to beat him in practice for years.
Now Pekka Rinne’s backup is one of the NHL’s best goalies in his own right and has Nashville on the verge of an eighth straight playoff berth going into their home finale Tuesday night.
Just as the Predators expected.
“We all knew he was going to take over at some point,” captain Roman Josi said. “Obviously, last year was kind of a first year. He played a lot of games. He was awesome for us. We all know how good he is. But obviously, he’s having an unbelievable year. He’s been our biggest key to success this year.”
Saros is second to only Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky for most wins with 38, and nobody has started or played more than Saros with a career-high 66 games this season. He ranks eighth with a save percentage of .920, has four shutouts and played in his first All-Star Game earlier this season.
The native of Forssa, Finland, made his Nashville debut with a start in the 2015-16 season. He took over as Rinne’s backup the next season, starting more games each successive year. Saros moved ahead of Rinne in 2020-21, starting 14 games more than the 2018 Vezina Trophy winner who retired in July.
Saros was a big reason the Predators made a late run to the playoffs last season. After returning in the middle of March from an upper-body injury, he led the NHL over his last 23 games with a .945 save percentage with three shutouts down the stretch and had a career-high 21 victories.
He tied for second in save percentage (.927), tied for fifth with his three shutouts and fourth with a 2.28 goals-against average and sixth in wins. He led NHL goalies with a .942 even-strength save percentage. Saros tied for sixth in voting for the Vezina Trophy and 11th for the Hart Trophy voting.
Coach John Hynes said Saros, now 27, has met the challenges that came with knowing Nashville’s net was his this season. Saros is putting into practice lessons learned by watching Rinne by managing himself from game to game while dealing with the stress of being the starter.
“He’s been really consistent,” Hynes said. “He’s very conscientious of himself and his game and how he’s feeling, but I also think he’s been really coachable and he’s a big reason we are where we are right now.”
Saros lacks the size the 6–5 Rinne brought to the net at 5-11 and 180 pounds. He makes up for that with speed and vision, able to move quickly across the crease.
“He’s never out of position, even cross-ice passes, he never struggles to get over there,” Josi said. “He’s so quick with his movement and also with his mind, so I think that’s the one thing. He’s never really out of position.”
Predators forward Mikael Granlund can’t recall the last time he beat Saros in practice, something that requires a bit of luck. Granlund says he’s glad not to have to face someone he’s seen in practice for years and skates with during the summer.