When the Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators meet for the first round of the playoffs this week, they will be doing so thanks in large part to the performances of a couple of young star goalies.
For the Canes, that young star is Alex Nedeljvkovic, who emerged out of nowhere as one of the best goalies in the NHL as a rookie and helped put the final puzzle piece in place to make this team more than just a middle-of-the-road playoff contender.
He has made this Canes team look like a Stanley Cup contender.
On the other side, Jusse Saros has quickly gone from the young backup to the future of the position in Nashville after his best regular season to date. The 26-year-old posted top-10 league-wide goalie numbers in 2021 in a career-high number of starts.
This opening round showdown will be very entertaining for many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is the pending goalie battle that just might be the deciding factor in the series.
Welcome to our 2021 playoff previews.
Hurricanes Goalie Breakdown
Alex Nedeljkovic: 23 starts, 15-3-5, .932 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average, 3 shutouts, 13.78 goals saved above expected
James Reimer: 21 starts, 15-5-2, .906 save percentage, 2.66 goals-against average, 0 shutouts, -4.20 goals saved above expected
Petr Mrazek: 12 starts, 6-2-3, .923 save percentage, 2.06 goals-against average, 3 shutouts, 9.53 goals saved about expected
The Hurricanes’ three-headed goalie monster very quickly shed itself down to a normal goalie tandem down the stretch of the regular season.
After Mrazek returned from injury, it became apparent that the club’s preferred system would involve just the veteran Czech netminder and Nedeljkovic, Carolina’s rookie star who emerged from the preseason waiver process and quickly became the best goalie on the roster and one of the best goalies in the league.
From April 4 through the end of the regular season, Nedeljkovic had nine starts, Mrazek had eight start and Reimer had three starts.
Nedeljkovic closed out the year with a .932 save percentage. His 13.78 goals saved above expected ranked fourth in the entire league, trailing only Marc-Andre Fleury, Connor Hellebuyck and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Mrazek wasn’t far behind, ranking seventh in the league in GSAx despite getting just 12 starts.
While we don’t know who will get the start for game one against the Predators, it will absolutely be one of Mrazek or Nedeljkovic, and whoever doesn’t get the nod will absolutely see playing time in the opening round.
Surprisingly, the team’s leader in starts this season was Nedeljkovic. But, of course, that has everything to do with Mrazek’s injury issues.
Safe money says that Rod Brind’Amour and his staff will go with Mrazek for game one, but maybe a Nedeljkovic curveball is in order.
Last season, the Hurricanes had a very well-defined goalie duo. That same can be said this year, but the vibes surrounding them are very different. In 2019-20, you knew who your guys were, but I don’t know how much confidence there was in them carrying you through multiple rounds of a postseason.
This season, Carolina has two of the top-seven goalies in hockey in goals saved above expected and possessed one of the best team save percentages in the league. As a result, goaltending went from the team’s biggest concern to perhaps their best asset.
The question now is whether that will carry over into to postseason. The playoffs are a different animal, but to this point, Ned and Mrazek have given very little reason to be worried.
They have been alpha goalies.
Predators Goalie Breakdown
Juuse Saros: 35 starts, 21-11-1, .927 save percentage, 2.28 goals-against average, 3 shutouts, 8.24 goals saved above expected
Pekka Rinne: 21 starts, 10-12-1, .907 save percentage, 2.84 goals-against average, 2 shutouts, -10.52 goals saved above expected
While Carolina boasts a formidable goalie depth chart, Nashville forms a formidable starter and just the starter.
Saros just completed a huge season in his career, establishing himself as the present and future of Nashville goaltending. After starting all of the Predators’ playoff games in the bubble in 2020, he finished the 2021 season with 14 more starts than Rinne. It’s the first time that Saros has eclipsed Rinner in regular-season starts, and he did it by a landslide.
Rinne could very well call it quits after this season. That is yet to be seen, but for now, we know that this Nashville team is rolling with one of the best goalies in the league in Saros.
The 26-year-old Finn finished 10th in GSAx, and his .927 save percentage and 35 starts set new career highs.
Among goalies with at least 500 5-on-5 TOI, Saros (1657:01 TOI) and Nedeljkovic (1130:25 TOI) finished tied for best in the NHL with a .945 5-on-5 save percentage. The two young goalies have a nearly identical high-danger save percentage as well at .868 and .869, respectively. Petr Mrazek finished his season with almost the exact same numbers as well, just in far fewer minutes due to injury.
While Rinne will be available if needed, expect Saros to see the net every time out for the Predators in the first round. In many respects, he is the reason why this team is here. He had an outstanding regular season that may lead to him getting some Vezina Trophy votes. He was that good, and he is that responsible for this team’s second-half success and their playoff berth.
He is capable of stealing games. He is capable of stealing a series.
On paper, These two teams match up very evenly with regards to their goaltending. Saros, Nedeljkovic, and Mrazek all posted eye-popping numbers this season, and it’s safe to assume that team that gets the most out of their goalies will end up winning this series.