Few would argue over whether Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith can handle playoff pressure.
The goalies for the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes, respectively, were critical to their teams’ victories in the opening round of the 2012 NHL playoffs. Now, each has recorded a shutout in the last two games of their Western Conference semifinal series.
What each side wants to find out, though, is whether the opposing goalie can handle the puck while under pressure.
“I think that any time you have the puck on your stick — if you’re a goaltender, a defenseman or a forward — you afford the other team an opportunity to make you mess up,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said.”
Rinne and Smith are typically included in any discussion about the best stick-handling goalies in the league.
In the last two games, though, the Phoenix netminder has made mistakes that created prime scoring chances for the Predators, one of which they converted.
“Smith — he’s one of the best. And Pekka’s up there too,” Nashville center Mike Fisher said. “[Smith] is really good with the puck. He’s always out there.
“So with goalies that are trying to make plays you’re going to have more [opportunities]. If you have good forechecking routes and you know some of his tendencies then sometimes you can get on him quick and pick some of those off.”
That’s exactly what happened last Wednesday in Game 3.
Smith tried to move the puck out from behind his net with a pass along the boards. Predators left wing Gabriel Bourque intercepted it in the corner and fed David Legwand, who shot before Smith could get back in the net. The goal gave Nashville a 1-0 lead in a game it eventually won 2-0.
Two nights later, Smith fumbled the puck in front of his net and left it there for Patric Hornqvist. Somehow, with Smith face down on the ice and a wide open net, Hornqvist shot over the top. The Predators ultimately lost that one 1-0.
“When I look down the other end in this series, really he’s one of the best goalie puckhandlers in this league,” Rinne said. “He can really be like a third defenseman. … There’s a fine line when you do it too much or get overconfident with the puck.
“But our [defensemen] always like it when I play the puck so I try to help as much as I can.”
When a goalie moves the puck effectively, he can help his defensemen in variety of ways.
They can save time and energy because they do not always have to go all the way back to their own goal line. Instead, the goalie can get it to them closer to the blue line. In other situations the netminder can keep the puck moving along the boards so that his defensemen are not exposed to the exposing team’s forcheck. Also, a deft and daring goalie also can feed forward at the opposite blue line and catch the opposing team in a line change.
Rinne handled the puck often enough and effectively enough during the regular season that he led all netminders with five assists. Smith had two.
Players like those, however, are a luxury.
Of the six goalies who finished the regular season with three or more assists, only Rinne and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur are starting for teams still alive in the postseason.
“They all have an effect of the game if they are moving the puck effectively,” Trotz said. “[Smith] is just like anybody else — if you can force them to make mistakes, you can capitalize — especially with a goaltender out of the net. We forced a mistake [in Game 3] and we were able to capitalize on it.
“When we have to put the puck into their end and he’s touching it, our patience and our systematic routes have to be very precise or he will make plays to his defense or to other forwards. So you have to be really alert and know what he is doing.”
The one thing they do know is that he is not going to just sit in his net and wait for the puck to come to him.
“I’ve played against Smith since the minors,” Rinne said. “Back then he played the same way — he played the puck a lot.”