Juuse Saros Holds The Keys To The Last Playoff Spot Out West
1:39 PM EDT on March 29, 2023
The eighth seed in the Western Conference is a much greater prize than it may initially appear. Over in the East, of course, the final seat on the postseason train takes you to Massachusetts, where a historically great Bruins team is salivating over the prospect of a deep run. But in the West, it's anyone's Campbell Bowl. The best record there—Vegas's 46-22-6—is tied with the Rangers, who hold just the fifth-best mark on the other side. And the difference in points percentage between first and eighth—a whole .250 in the East—is a mere .095. Anyone who makes it in has a realistic path to the Final.
And it'll be a good race to get in! Seattle, in the seven spot, looks just safe enough with single-digit games remaining, but that date with Vegas or the Kings or the Avs or whomever grabs the top slot is still wide open. Winnipeg, who took a bad loss to the Sharks on Tuesday night, has 85 points from 75 games. Calgary has 83 from 75. Nashville, which technically controls its own destiny, has 82 from 73. And however goaltender Juuse Saros goes, so go the Predators.
The Preds' 2-1 win in Boston on Tuesday may have been the hardest-earned two points of the entire regular season. It's impossible to consider this game outside the context of the school shooting in Nashville the day before, which led to an appropriately subdued local broadcast. And purely from a hockey standpoint, the Predators were facing a squad that had lost just three regulation games at home all year, and who were set to clinch the Presidents' Trophy with a win. Nashville would do so while missing a bunch of their top skaters, too. Roman Josi, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg were already injured, and Matt Duchene added to the trouble after being hit in the hand with a shot during the team's last game. That's four of the top five Preds point-getters from last year at the doctor's office, and the fifth, Mikael Granlund, is in Pittsburgh now. (Tanner Jeannot, in sixth, also got shipped at the deadline.) If you're wondering if anyone has stepped up in their absence, I would answer by pointing to this team's 2.75 goals per game, which is 28th in the NHL.
But one man has been a constant for these Preds, and that's Saros. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound, still-pretty-young kid from Finland has been the league's steadiest goalie over the last three years. And while that's a little like being the most sober person at Woodstock, Tuesday night was a reminder of all the good Saros brings to a team that badly needs him. He's just a damn workhorse, second only to Winnipeg boulder Connor Hellebuyck with 57 appearances on the year and behind only overmatched Duck John Gibson with 1,711 saves. But Saros is also fundamentally pristine, because you have to be when you're not just small for a goalie, but a little small for a hockey player in general. His positioning is stellar and shuts off ideal angles, but he's also got a talent for, when quick puck movement negates that first skill, moving his body left and right to shut down scoring opportunities the moment they appear. Goaltender is a notoriously hot-and-cold position, but the fact that Saros's save percentage has never dropped below .914 in any of his seven seasons in Nashville (first as a backup, then a full-timer) points to an approach that can be reproduced year after year.
Versus Seattle on Saturday was a bad night for Saros, one of his worst, but he showed no signs of a hangover in Boston. The most highlight-worthy moment wasn't even his, but rather came when Luke Evangelista, playing his 15th career game, swiped a puck off the line that would have opened the Bruins' account with a shorthanded goal. But overall, even missing his all-time great D-man Josi, Saros worked beautifully with a scattershot group of defenders to produce a recipe for a win. He didn't back down when the Bruins got close. He swallowed pucks into his chest. When he did give up rebounds, the Preds' focus on playing a low-event game had them quickly sweeping the danger zones to eliminate the threat. Some persistence by Cody Glass at the end of the second got Nashville its first goal. A long empty netter from Cole Smith made it 2-0. And only in the game's literal final second did David Pastrňák manage to ruin the shutout with his 52nd goal of the year.
The Preds in a lot of ways look like the opposite of the Edmonton Oilers, who beat Vegas 7-4 on Tuesday to continue an eye-catching hot streak. The Oil Boys boast a truly ridiculous level of talent at the very top of their forward lines, and they've proven they can win by just overwhelming lesser goalies with their scoring capabilities. But the ways they've given up leads they've built and have relied on the power play don't make this stretch feel like a legitimate test run for the playoffs, where physicality and defense are more important while the penalties and the opposition mistakes are rarer.
Nashville, meanwhile, has nothing even close to what Edmonton, or really almost any playoff team, can provide on offense. But this Boston win is an obvious blueprint for how they could take down a more talented foe. This is a team that loves a 2-1 game, who can win by playing calm, even stagnant hockey and trusting that the other goalie's slip-ups will outnumber their own. It's not thrilling, and when it doesn't work the Preds barely look like a pro team. But it's hard to argue with Saros's résumé, and I'd be just a little bit scared of him if he was the guy I needed to beat in order to get past the first round.