Monday, April 9, 2012

Jimmy Howard vs. Pekka Rinne

Well, we're here. It's playoff time and everyone is buzzing about whose going to step up to the plate and deliver a legendary performance and who is going to go home the loser. The Detroit Red Wings play the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference's tightest matchup. As much as I'd like to go on a tirade about legacies, streaks, and Detroit's recent success against Nashville in the playoffs, I'm taking off my Red Wings cap to put on my goaltending analysis cap.

In the red corner, there's Detroit Red Wings starting goaltender, Jimmy Howard. In the blue corner, Nashville Predators' starting goaltender Pekka Rinne. Is there a better matchup among first round goaltenders? I think not. Without any further peacocking, it's time to see how these two stack up against one another.

Here. We. Go.

REGULAR SEASON

Jimmy Howard: Detroit's goaltending saviour had a phenomenal regular season, sporting top ten numbers in wins, save percentage, goals against average, and shutouts. As good as that is for Jimmy after a mediocre sophomore campaign, the better news was he did all of this in a season where he went down twice with injuries. Perhaps that is looking through rose coloured glasses, but since coming back from injury he looks like the same guy who stole a LOT of wins in the first half of the season. The injuries are a black mark on the season, but not enough to steal away the credit earned as Jimmy flirted with the idea of smashing Martin Brodeur's NHL record for wins (48).

Pekka Rinne: Nashville has always had a lot of luck with their goaltenders. Are they a product of their defensive system? I disagree with the notion, and Pekka Rinne is the perfect way to explain why. The guy is a straight up DYNAMO in goal. He led the league in wins, saves, shots against, and games played. He's a workhorse, and a damn good one. Since becoming the Predator's starter his workload has constantly increased over four seasons, and he's only gotten better. The idea of a fresh Pekka Rinne in the playoffs is as intimidating as just about any goaltender in the NHL. He is to be respected. He should be nominated for the Vezina, but will likely be overlooked in favor of some random guy in New York. Henrik something or other. Pfft.

Jimmy Howard's 2011-2012 Record: 35-17-4, 2.13 GAA, .920 SV%, 6 SO
Pekka Rinne's 2011-2012 Record: 43-18-8, 2.39 GAA, .923 SV%, 5 SO

Advantage: Pekka Rinne. Jimmy Howard's season is difficult to fully gage as he went down with an injury near the end. Twice. It's hard to say whether he would have kept pace or not. Even though Jimmy walks away with a better goals-against-average and more shutouts, Rinne had a Vezina season.

PLAYOFF PERFORMANCE

Jimmy Howard: The Wings have gone down twice in a row to the San Jose Sharks in recent seasons, both of which had Jimmy Howard in goal. All due respect to the Sharks for dumping the Red Wings twice in a row, Jimmy wasn't the reason they lost and his numbers defend this point. In two playoff seasons, Howard has a respectable-but-not-yet-impressive 21-11 record with a bloated 2.63 GAA and a surprising .919 SV%. Having enjoyed watching Jimmy play the last two playoffs I can say that he is the least concern in this series. He will do his job and at times steal the show.



Pekka Rinne: In the two seasons Pekka Rinne has led the Nashville Predators into the playoffs, they went home empty handed once and in the most recent season popped their playoff series cherry, beating the stingy Anaheim Ducks 4-2. Rinne has been pedestrian, sporting an 8-10 record with a 2.60 GAA and a .908 SV%. Those are way down from the Pekka Rinne standard that dominated the regular season. One could argue that too much of a burden is placed on Rinne to dominate games that tend to be tighter, more defensive, and light on goal scoring. I don't think Rinne completely evades criticism, as .908 is a good save percentage number but NOT if you're going to win it all. Goalies, more than anyone, need to be sharp and stingy. Pekka Rinne can do it, but clearly he has yet to perform at maximum ability.



Jimmy Howard's Playoff Record: 12-11, 2.63 GAA, .919 SV%, 1 SO
Pekka Rinne's Playoff Record: 8-10, 2.60 GAA, .908 SV%, 0 S)

Advantage: Jimmy Howard. Jimmy help bring Detroit to within five minutes of overcoming San Jose's 3-0 series lead. Jimmy has taken over playoff series and won them. Pekka Rinne, despite providing the Vancouver Canucks with a nail biting series, hasn't reached the level he should be at in the postseason. Neither have world-beating records, but the numbers show Jimmy has been better.

SO WHO IS BETTER?

There isn't much else to analyze, so I'll cut straight to the heart of the matter. Having watched both goaltenders play in the regular season and playoffs the past two seasons, it's clear who the better goaltender is. Pekka Rinne has been on the outskirts of Vezina talk for some time now and if he doesn't get the nomination, maybe even the win, this season, there's something wrong. He is a great goaltender. He stymies opponents every time he's on the ice. He takes advantage of a defensive system built on playing stingy hockey with no holes. Where there are holes, Pekka Rinne plugs the leaks. He has an immaculate gift for winning those one goal affairs. It's something that gets ignored come trophy season. On the other hand, Jimmy Howard has stepped into a role that has seen legends like Terry Sawchuck, Roger Crozier, Dominik Hasek, Mike Vernon, and of course Chris Osgood, dominate the position. The difference between all of these goaltenders (exception being Crozier, who was with the Wings in tougher times) and Jimmy Howard is that they all stood behind teams that had an endless parade of Hall-of-Fame forwards and defensemen who consistently shellshocked other teams into submission. This iteration of the Detroit Red Wings that boasts the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nick Lidstrom, are not the 2002 Red Wings. No, this is a team that needs great goaltending to succeed. All due respect to Osgood, who didn't shock the world into thinking he was great until his final two playoff seasons, Jimmy could become the better of the two, and may already be there. Rather than have the Fedorovs and Datsyuks take over the game, it's now Jimmy leading the charge. It's a refreshing change. Is Jimmy Howard a great goaltender? Not yet. He is on the step before the top step in the staircase of goaltending greatness. Pekka Rinne is a half step ahead.

Rolling into Nashville on Wednesday night is going to be the biggest challenge the Detroit Red Wings have faced in the first round of the playoffs in a long time. I have much respect for our division rivals, even though the constant use of the term "SCUM" to describe the players and fanbase is enough to turn me away from reading their websites. This series is THE one to watch in round one. If not for the fantastic rivalry that is growing, then it is for the outstanding goaltending dual about to happen. It's going to be a seven game slugfest decided by overtime and one goal games. Hopefully, by series' end, Detroit will be walking away the victor, but I have no illusions of grandeur that it will be easy.

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