#Pekka4Vezina: How Rinne could win or lose it

by Jackson Walsh

The Vezina trophy, defined by the league as being awarded to the goaltender who is “adjudged to be the best at this position”, is one of the many coveted honors an NHL goalie can experience. As goaltender, arguably the hardest position on the ice, it takes hours of practice, reflex, and just being at the right place in at the right time. For the best in the business, Nashville faithful can think of only one.

Pekka Rinne is one of the most entertaining goaltenders to watch, in my opinion, in the history of the league. The way he can read a puck from a mile away, his perfect butterfly stance when he sprawls in front of the net for a loose puck, that spine chilling dive to stop a bouncing puck from crawling into the net behind his back in the Chicago series, to just how hard a skater has to work to blind side him to get the goal. Last season, on March 25, 2017, he led the Predators to a 7-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks in his 500th game played. On February 22, 2018, nearly a year later and again against the Sharks, the Predators prevailed 7-1 for Pekka’s 300th win all-time.

Rinne, now 35 just like his jersey number, has been in the league since the 2005-06 season, and this season has successfully tallied 41 wins with the club and has an overall record of 41-11-4 for the season. By the way, Nashville is currently 49-16-11 on the season. This is the most for Peks since the 2011-12 campaign, when he went 43-18-8 with a GAA of 2.39. That year, he was a finalist for Vezina, but eventually lost out to New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The year before, he was a finalist and lost to Bruins Tim Thomas. Then, in 2014-15, he was a finalist yet again, but fell short to the Montreal CanadiensCarey Price.

The stiffest competition for Rinne this season is another outstanding man between the pipes, Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 24-year old goaltender from the Russian Federation is 42-15-3 in the Bolts’ 17-18 campaign with a 2.59 GAA and .921 save percentage rivaling Pekka’s stats at 41-11-4 with a 2.25 GAA and a .929 save percentage. Nearly the same story with both goaltenders, except Rinne has played in five fewer games.  Rinne’s eight shutouts also helps his case, against Vasilevskiy’s seven. But here’s the real kicker, Vasilevskiy has played in more games. He has played in 61 games for the Lightning while Pekka has played in 56.

So what exactly does Pekka Rinne have to do to get over the hump and win the coveted Vezina over another stalwart opponent? Well maybe not just him, but the Predators as a whole. The Predators and the Lightning, unsurprisingly, are in a heated race for the President’s trophy.

The Predators have a very tough homestretch for the rest of March and the last of the season in April, so for Nashville to get the Presidents trophy would help the veteran Rinne’s status tremendously over a young phenom like Vasilevskiy. But Vas has a strong case as well, in that he emerged the starter in a three-goalie rotation with veteran Peter Budaj.

A huge benefit for the Predators this season has been the strong play by backup goaltender Juuse Saros. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but what might be considered is the strong season by Juuse Saros and his frequent use in back-to-back games.  “The Juice” is 8-5-7 overall this season, but has played in 21 games, starting in 20 of them. Despite an overall losing record including overtime losses (he still has work to do in the shootout), Saros has a 2.44 GAA and .925 save percentage on the season.  But the question is while Saros’ play has allowed Rinne to get needed rest, will it distract from Rinne’s Vezina resume?

Long have us Nashville fans enjoyed this dynamic duo between the pipes, as it has led to a lot of successful outings and is one of the main reasons why the Preds are one of the teams to beat in the entire NHL.

However, the fact that Vasilevskiy has done nearly just as good as Rinne playing more games helps his case out more so than Rinne, who has a stronger backup than Saros. Every time Saros is on the ice, Peks isn’t, meaning that it is a rare occurrence to have Saros yanked from a game for poor performance.

Other candidates standing in Rinne’s way:

  1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets (40-11-9): Due to this competitive season in particular, Winnipeg is forming into a strong rival to the Preds and the battle at the goaltender position is no exception. When the Predators and the Jets face off, usually this year it has led to several goals, but both these goaltenders tend to fight well under pressure. Hellebuyck is another young player who, with only 2 years of NHL play under his belt, has a record of 40-11-9 on the season with a 2.38 GAA and .923 save percentage. Add six shutouts to the mix, and you have a strong contender. Again, just like the President’s trophy battle with the Lightning, it may come down to who wins the Central between Peks and Hellebuyck, in the event that the Jets netminder gets a good amount of votes. The Jets also have a relatively easy end to the season, playing the non-factor Blackhawks twice and the non contending Flames, two teams that could add to Hellebuyck’s resume following an upset.
  2. Marc Andre-Fleury, Las Vegas Golden Knights (28-11-4): Ah yes, the former Pittsburgh Penguin finds himself among the ranks of great goaltenders once again. Though he does not have as many wins or as many games played as Rinne, Vas, and the others, he has contributed to Vegas being a legitimate playoff threat in their inaugural season. The .931 save % over his 43 games played shouldn’t be overlooked either. The 13-year veteran has racked up an unprecedented 1,206 saves out of 1,295 shots faced, only adding to the feel good story that is the early success of the Knights. He’s a dark horse candidate, but a notable one nonetheless.
  3. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets (35-22-5): The defending Vezina trophy winner has another notable year, with a .921 Save % and 2.38 GAA, for the contending Blue Jackets at 35-22-5, and until Saturday’s 2-1 loss to St. Louis enjoyed a seven-game winning streak. Bobrovsky still recorded 26 saves in the loss, and has skyrocketed to a .939 save percentage his last five games. A hot streak at the right time like this might be the difference maker to put Sergei near the top again.

2017-18 has arguably been a great year for goaltenders in the National Hockey League, and no doubt Pekka is among the elite.  Seeing Pekka handed the Vezina trophy at the end of this season would be quite a sight and a fitting recognition of a great season and a validation of an arguably Hall of Fame career.  This Vezina race is his to lose and Rinne is in playoff form.  #Pekka4Vezina

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