There’s a lot riding on the performance of Juuse Saros for the Nashville Predators in their playoff series with the Carolina Hurricanes, which begins tonight at 7 p.m. with Game 1 in Carolina.

For one, Saros is the Preds’ far and away best player. He’s likely to receive Vezina consideration and he’s almost single handedly the reason the Preds are even in the playoffs. He started 23 of the team’s final 26 games, winning 16 of those, mostly due to an astonishing .941 save percentage.

Further to the point, goaltending is the most important factor in playoff games. Teams that lack pure talent or that are outmatched in other areas on the ice can equalize their chances in the series with elite goaltending. As I mentioned last week, many goalies over the years have carried their team on their backs all the way to winning the Stanley Cup.

But here’s another point on Saros’ ability to steal the series: his skills in net might translate specifically to stopping the Carolina Hurricanes and all the weapons they have on offense.

Juuse Saros’ saves map bodes well for Preds

Juuse Saros’ stats in goal clearly place him in the top three best goalies in the league. Among goalies with at least 2000 minutes played, he’s third in overall save percentage, 1st in even strength save percentage, and third in goals saved above average at all strengths.

One of the keys to Saros’ excellence in net is his lateral movement. Using his heightened tracking skills, he’s able to move side to side in net better than most goalies. This is quite different from Pekka Rinne, who used his length to cover the goal laterally, which he could do because of his size.

Saros is only 5’11” and must use his legs to get across the goal crease, something he does very well.

But there’s something interesting when looking at the saves map for the Preds from this year. From Hockey Viz (@ineffectivemath):

Juuse Saros

Quick note. The red hexagons mean the likelihood of a goal increases for the opponent, and blue hexagons mean the likelihood of a goal decreases for the opponent.

Saros has an increased chance of allowing a goal on his left side, which is his glove side, but keep in mind that doesn’t mean goals are going in over his glove. The map only indicates where the shot is coming from, not how it goes in.

Now look at the scoring map for the Carolina Hurricanes from this season. Note where they have an increased chance of scoring from in front of the net (red/pink = increased chances, blue = decreased chances).

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina has been scoring mostly from directly in front of the net and just to the left of the goalie (the goalie’s right side) in all situations. The right side of the Carolina attack (i.e., the goalie’s left side) hasn’t been as strong. The strongest part of their attack comes from above the circles in the middle of the ice.

One theory on Carolina’s shot success map could be handedness of shooters. Four of the Hurricanes’ top five goal scorers are left handed shooters. Left-handed wingers usually score by coming from their wing-side toward the center of the ice and firing on net from the middle, especially if they are “off-wing” positionally, as Andrei Svechnikov sometimes plays. Left handed centers like Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal are likely to bend outward when shooting the puck, leaning more towards the left side of the goal (i.e., the goalie’s right side).

Looking specifically at Sebastian Aho, the Canes’ most dangerous offensive weapon, and you see this phenomena in action:

Sebastian Aho

Most of Aho’s goals are coming from the middle and left side of the ice (i.e., the middle and right side from the goalie’s perspective) and he hasn’t had much success scoring from the right circle.

Looking back at Saros’ map, his troubles come on shots coming from his left side, but it looks like Carolina prefers to push towards the middle of the ice, moving right to left (i.e, left to right from the goalie perspective) across the ice. And given Saros’ lateral abilities, you like his chances to match the speed of the Carolina skaters as they cross the middle of the ice. You also like his chances at playing the Carolina counter attack, as he has the lateral speed to stop 2-on-1’s consistently.

These shot maps can be a little misleading, and they don’t tell you everything, but this could mean the Carolina attack has a pattern that Juuse Saros matches up well against.

Juuse Saros played in four games against the Hurricanes this year, winning one of them (last Saturday’s clincher) and generating a .917 save percentage at all situations. For going up against one of the best offensive teams in the NHL, that’s a fine save percentage and one you feel good about moving into the series.

A goaltender can’t do everything. At some point, the Nashville Predators’ offense will have to put pucks in the net at the other end, and the defense has to make sure Juuse Saros isn’t overrun in his own end.

But with a guy as good as Juuse Saros in the net, and with his particular strengths at tracking the puck and move laterally, you have to think he’s a reason the Preds can win this series against the Hurricanes.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —