The Nashville Predators still have a chance to make a run for the playoffs, despite their “Jekyll & Hyde” approach to the season so far.

Yes, a team that can go from beating the Capitals 5-4 in their own barn to getting shutout 3-0 at home to the Golden Knights, then steal two points in Winnipeg on Tuesday with a 2-1 overtime victory, is still very much alive in the playoff race.

One key to this is that the Preds’ goaltending, which has been a major weakness this season, has slowly been getting better over the last month or so.

Take Tuesday night for example, when Juuse Saros played a pivotal role in keeping the Predators in the game until Mikael Granlund sealed the win in overtime. He had multiple highlight reel saves in the 2nd and 3rd period with the game tied 1-1 and helped keep the Jets’ dynamic scorers off the board when it mattered.

Saros’ performance followed what was an equally impressive performance by Pekka Rinne on Saturday night in Nashville, albet with a different result for the Predators. Rinne finished with 36 saves, doing his best to hold off the Golden Knights while the Predators skaters struggled to get anything going at the other end.

In back to back games, Preds goalies have combined for a 69 saves on 72 shots for a .958 save percentage. But it’s more than just the last two games that indicate improvement for the goaltenders.

Rinne & Saros trending up

Since the debacle that was the Winter Classic back on January 1st, the Preds have been a better team overall. Goaltending has been a big part of that, with each goalie improving on their overall season save percentage and recording some impressive wins over tough opponents in the process.

The Predators entered New Year’s Day a sub .500 hockey team, going 10-12-4 in their previous 26 games and really struggling to do anything right. After falling 4-2 to the Dallas Stars on a national stage, then firing their head coach a few days later, the Nashville Predators season seemed quite over.

And while it may not yet be revived, improvement in such a key area like goaltending is one reason to not give up yet. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have been much better players over the last month and there’s reason to hope they will continue the trend.

One reason for such hope is that each goalie has improved upon previous areas of weakness over the last few weeks. For example, Juuse Saros was among the worst goalies in the league at 5-on-5 save percentage between opening night and January 1st, coming in at 51st in the league with an .898 percentage. Since the Winter Classic, Saros has a 5-on-5 save percentage of .936, good for 12th in the league.

As for Pekka Rinne, he’s been much better on the penalty kill over the last few weeks. He was flat out awful on the penalty kill earlier in the year, ranking 55th (dead last among goalies with at least 50 minutes shorthanded) in the league with a .750 save percentage. Since January 1st, he’s 18th best in the league with an .842 save percentage, a significant improvement.

Rinne has also maintained his rate of stopping high danger shots, something he’s been consistent at all season. He currently ranks 6th in the league with an .862 high danger save percentage and showing no signs of decline. Saros struggled in that area to start the season, but since January 1st, he ranks 13th in the league with an .867 high danger save percentage.

Goaltending will be key down the stretch

Every team has a chance to make the playoffs if they have good goaltending, that’s obvious. But for the Nashville Predators, it would be paramount.

That’s because other than their sub-par performance in goal, they are actually a decent hockey team. At 5-on-5, they rank 8th in shot attempt share (CF%), 9th in expected goal share(xGF%), and 18th in high danger attempt share (HDCF%). They still struggle on special teams, and they probably won’t maintain their 9% team shooting percentage (6th highest in the league) the rest of the season, but they still do a lot of things well.

This team still has oodles of talent to make a final playoff run. Filip Forsberg is closing in on another 30 goal season. Mikael Granlund is starting to heat up. Matt Duchene has found some rhythm paired up with Ryan Johansen. We still don’t know when Ryan Ellis will return, but even without him, Roman Josi is making a strong case for the Norris Trophy.

For a team with such a solid roster, it’s been baffling to watch the Nashville Predators struggle with consistency, especially at home, this season. But if their goaltending continues to improve, you have to like their chances to string together some wins and make a final push for the playoffs.

— Stats via hockey-reference.com and Natural Stat Trick. Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —

 

 

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