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Contrasting goalie duo pays dividends for Predators

5-foot-11 rookie Juuse Saros benefits from relationship with 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- As a 5-foot-11 rookie, Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros looks up, literally and figuratively, to veteran Pekka Rinne, his 6-foot-5 partner.

Saros has only good things to say about the many ways his fellow Finn has helped him transition to the NHL. Saros praised Rinne, who is in his ninth NHL season, for helping him on and off the ice and credits the goalie he grew up idolizing for playing a big role in a sizzling start that includes a .950 save percentage (12 goals on 242 shots) in eight starts this season.

But if you want to really understand how Saros, 21, is succeeding as the smallest goalie in the NHL right now, it might be better to talk to Rinne about the things he is learning from Saros.

For all the talk of Rinne mentoring Saros, the Predators' established No. 1 is also learning from his undersized understudy, trying to add some of Saros' elements to his own game.

"Big time," Rinne said. "Even though I am 34, I've always felt the way you grow is watching other goalies. With him, for example, I obviously play a little bit different style but I also try year after year to simplify my game and be more efficient and effortless."

Rinne sees these as critical elements of Saros' success.

Video: NSH@CGY: Saros makes two stops on Flames' power play

"He's under control but he has amazing skill, just the way he skates and moves and controls his body," Rinne said. "He reads the puck extremely well, and that allows him to be calm. Obviously, with his size you have to be really precise; you can't just trust your coverage."

Saros, who has been told he is too small to be a goalie since he was "13 or 14," knows he has less margin for error than larger goaltenders just because his 180-pound frame fills less of the net. He doesn't try to make up for it by being more aggressive or challenging shooters beyond the edge of his crease, as many might assume. In fact, Rinne typically plays farther out in most situations.

Instead, Saros makes up for his lack of size by moving less and waiting longer to do so.

"I've always been a smaller guy, so you just have to be really precise on everything you do because you can't afford to be sloppy," Saros said. "I try to do everything really specific."

Saros hesitated to list one strength above others, but he put skating high on his list. His movement allows him to be so patient on his skates, to read plays longer before reacting to them.

"You can never be quick enough," he said, "so I still really work on that too."

When Saros does move, whether it's side to side on a pass or reacting to a shot, he rarely opens up first before closing on the puck, a function of patience and good puck tracking.

Many NHL goaltenders believe they need to start reacting based on how they read a shot coming off the stick, but Saros tries to wait and follow the puck right through the release.

"Sometimes it's both but it's best to track the puck," he said, "You can read the blade, but some guys are so skilled they can hide the release too so you have to focus on the puck."

Nashville's shooters have noticed in practice.

"When I first shot on him I thought, 'Oh, I can beat this kid, he is small.' But he surprises you with how good he is," said James Neal, who has scored 229 goals and written articles explaining the art of scoring in the NHL. "He makes great saves all the time but does it kind of effortlessly. He's hard to open up. He's always intact, tight, closes on pucks, moves into everything. I'm just really impressed with his ability to read the game and be patient and be set, and I think he's had to zone in on his game so much from having to overcome being a smaller goalie."

Video: BOS@NSH: Saros makes a great save to turn away Moore

Saros was actually listed at 5-foot-10 at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, where he had two shutouts in as many starts for Finland, which won a silver medal. He's had success at every level since becoming a goalie at age 9, yet he's always asked about his smaller size because the position trends toward goalies of Rinne's stature.

Size was a factor in slipping to the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft before Nashville took him No. 99. Less than four years later, he is the only goalie listed under 6 feet still in the NHL; Jaroslav Halak, Jhonas Enroth and Anton Khudobin have been sent down to the American Hockey League during the season.

Bucking that trend won't be easy for Saros, but Rinne believes his partner has the demeanor and work ethic to get through the inevitable ups and downs that come with the position.

Saros has also learned how to battle from Rinne.

Just as Rinne tries to quiet his game by mirroring Saros, Predators goalie coach Ben Vanderklok has encouraged Saros to add some of the battle level that has always been a signature of Rinne's game. Just as they've worked to improve Saros' puckhandling to match Rinne, they use drills designed to create desperation situations to instill principles of battling with a purpose.

"I always want to play the game with jam," Rinne said. "But when we do goalie drills together I really pay attention to what he does too. His post play and recovery lines, the way he is always able to find the post, he is spot on and never misses it. It looks super easy for him. Things like that I try to improve in my game. Obviously I don't think I will ever be as smooth as him."

The same way that Saros will never be as big as Rinne, but by learning from and mimicking part of strength of the other, they may each keep getting better, even if they always have different approaches.

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