Layman: Nashville Predators face huge challenge without Juuse Saros

Flames Predators Hockey
Posted at 5:58 AM, May 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-03 06:58:16-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For the eighth consecutive season, the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But their chances of sticking around took a big hit Monday with the official announcement that star goaltender Juuse Saros will miss at least the first two games of the team’s first-round series against Colorado.

Saros suffered what appeared to be a left leg injury last Tuesday in a game against the Flames. Nashville was leading by a goal when the Vezina Trophy candidate hobbled to the bench and down the tunnel in the waning minutes of the third period.

Just how important is his presence? His replacement David Rittich gave up an improbable game-tying goal with 00:00.1 left in regulation, and then surrendered a soft game-winner that squirted between his elbow and his pads and over the goal line in overtime. That dropped point ultimately cost the Predators the No. 1 Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and a first-round matchup against the Flames instead of the 119-point Avalanche.

Now they will be facing the conference’s top seed in a best-of-seven series with either Rittich or 25-year-old AHL call-up Connor Ingram as their starting goaltender for however long Saros is out, if he’s even able to make it back to play in the postseason.

The Preds were going to be sizable underdogs against either of the Western Conference’s top teams, but without Saros no one — I mean NO ONE — is giving them a chance. One predictive measure gives the Avalanche a 29% chance — nearly one in three odds — to sweep the series.

Nashville’s proved the experts wrong before. Back in 2017 — the last time they were the final seed in the playoffs — the Predators embarked on the deepest playoff run in team history. They swept the top seed Blackhawks, then defeated the Blues and Ducks in six games each to reach the Stanley Cup Final, where they ultimately fell short against the Penguins in six games.

But that run was buoyed by goaltender Pekka Rinne — the franchise’s best player — playing at an other-worldly level.

The Predators also made fools of the prognosticators this season just by making it to the playoffs. Almost no one had them in the 16-team postseason at the beginning of the year, yet here they are. But that was due in large part to the phenomenal season of Saros, who started 67 games between the pipes, more than any other goalie in the league.

And there’s a huge dropoff when you get to the backups on this team. Rittich played just 17 games total this season and only made 12 starts, giving up 3.57 goals per game and only stopping around 89% of the shots he faced. The 29-year-old’s played in just one career playoff game before, coming off the bench in a Calgary loss in 2020 and allowing three goals on just nine shots.

But Rittich is the most likely option to get the call from John Hynes Tuesday in game one because while Ingram has been a star in Milwaukee in the AHL this season he is completely green at the NHL level. He’s played in just three NHL games, all starts this season, giving up 11 goals on a save percentage of only 88%. He got the chance to show what he could do on the final night of the regular season and he gave up five goals as the Preds blew a 4-0 lead in Arizona to fall into the final wild card slot.

Rittich, at least, found a way to bounce back from the dreadful finish against Calgary to beat Colorado in a shootout last Thursday — yet another reason it’s likely he will hear his name called in game one. But the Predators are going to need others to step up.

This doesn’t feel like there’s any chance of it being a Matt Murray in Pittsburgh or Braden Holtby back in the lineup in Washington situation. The Predators' best shot to make a run in this postseason is for Saros to stand on his head and lead them. But with him out the Preds are going to just have to find a way to survive behind special performances.

Roman Josi became the first defenseman since 1990 to top 90 points this season, and Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg became the first two players to top 40 goals in a season in franchise history. Ryan Johansen, Mikael Granlund and others played well, but this is going to take an entire team effort to overcome what will be a decided disadvantage in the goalie’s crease.

Otherwise, it will be a short series. Just like the experts are predicting.