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1-Play Goalie Analysis: The Perils of Pekka, or, The Downside of Being Finntastic

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1-Play Goalie Analysis: The Perils of Pekka, or, The Downside of Being Finntastic

Minivan Dad

It's hard to criticize Pekka Rinne. The Nashville Predators are off to an excellent start this season (6-1-1 as of writing), and the 32-year old goaltender's adjusted 5v5 save percentage of nearly 95% ranks 6th among starting goalies in the NHL (war-on-ice.com). He returned to form last year after a serious hip injury, one which required surgery and was complicated by an infection that cost him the 2013-14 season. Despite missing three weeks with a knee injury, he was a Vezina Trophy finalist along with Devan Dubnyk and The Carey Price Phenomenon

I think one of the things that people love about him is the way he looks when he plays. He's a big man (I mean, ok, he's no Ben Bishop, Pekka's only 6'5") but he plays as if he's a smaller goalie on a mission to prove he belongs. He is active with his stick, he's aggressive, and he catches everything he can. In other words, he's so... Finnish.

I’ve always found it a little funny that Finnish goaltenders are renowned for catching the puck even more than American kids who grow up playing baseball and softball. It's partly explained by the fact that there actually is a popular bat and ball sport in Finland called pesäpallo, which uses a catching glove. It also makes complete sense if you listen to the original reasoning of Urpo Ylönen, a kind of Yoda of Finnish goalie development, who is nicely profiled here. In the old days, if you didn’t have a mask, why not use your glove to keep the puck from hitting you in the face? This idea permeates the Finnish goaltending development system, which tends to emphasize reactive save techniques over passive blocking ones, with particular focus on having active hands to control rebounds. This is part of what makes goalies like Rinne and Tuukka Rask so interesting to watch, and what drew people to Mikka Kiprusoff before them. They're just... exciting. 

Maybe that's part of my issue with Rinne. Sometimes, he's a little too exciting. Over the long haul of a regular NHL season, it isn't really a problem. Last season, though, the folks at InGoal Magazine (and friends) elaborated on what seemed to be a little hitch on Rinne's blocker side that was exploited by the Chicago Blackhawks en route to a first round playoff series win.

A play from the Predators lone regulation loss this season also demonstrates the downside of Rinne's active nature. On October 15, the Predators played the New York Islanders at the Isles' new home in Brooklyn, known to ticket holders who can actually see the full ice surface as the Barclays Center. With the game tied 2-2 early in the 3rd period, Nicolay Kulemin scored to give the Islanders a 3-2 lead. The Isles would score again in the period for the dreaded two goal lead, and ultimately win the game 4-3. On this pivotal third New York goal, Rinne's reliance on his reactive hands and upper body actually decreases his chance of making a tough save at an important time in the game. 

Rinne Full.gif

Mikhail Grabovski passes from the low circle on Rinne's left to Brock Nelson in the high slot. Nelson releases a quick wrist shot. The shot is wide of the goal on Rinne’s glove side, but it rebounds off the boards to the opposite side of the net. Rinne almost gets to the right post, but Nicolay Kulemin fires the puck past him for the go ahead goal. 

At first glance, it seems that the puck takes an unfortunate bounce off the end boards, and Rinne makes a valiant effort to stop Kulemin. I see it a little differently. The trouble for Rinne starts with Nelson's initial shot. It's quite wide, but Pekka reaches for it with his glove. This brings his glove down to pad level on a shot that he has no need, or chance, to reach.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 11.21.12 PM.png

His weight, as a result, shifts to his left, and he allows the momentum of his reach to carry his glove behind him. 

Recognizing that the puck has rebounded to his right, Rinne executes a high torque revolution of his upper body, led by his glove hand. He winds his glove up behind his left pad, and engages his left inside edge.

He "swims" his glove hand up and around the front of his body. This is actually a really amazing athletic move he makes in order to build maximal momentum to get back to his right, because he knows he is behind the play.

About halfway across, he does a little shuffle with his knees that supports his ability to complete this strong rotation move. 

Here's where things start to break down. Rinne has completed his rotation, but he hasn't reached the post yet. In order to reach the post, he launches his upper body forward and to his right. 

Despite the difficulty he created for himself off the initial shot, Pekka is actually, amazingly, in pretty good shape at this point! His blocker is at the post, and because he has tracked the puck appropriately with his head, his eyes are on the puck and his right shoulder and upper arm are nearly square to the shot in advance of Kulemin's release. 

Now things get interesting again. On the upcoming photo below, it's clear that Rinne has significantly less net coverage. Instead of seeing his upper arm between his head and the post, now there is visible goal.

So what happened? It appears to me that Pekka tracks the shot well off Kulemin's stick, and attempts to adjust his blocker and shoulder to what he's seen, as well as trying to seal the low ice with a paddle-down stick technique. The result is a barely-controllable upper body rotation that drives his right shoulder downward and forces Rinne to try seal the short side using his head, neck, and back.

rinne side 3x 3.jpg

Kulemin is able to lift the puck, and the shot appears to sneak between the top of Rinne's shoulder and his neck. (In the above photo, the puck is the vertical gray streak next to the stripe on Rinne's blocker.)

Rinne's shoulder (or the side of his mask) may partially block the shot, but the puck drops behind him into the net. Rinne's upper body continues to dive and rotate until his right shoulder is nearly on the ice. The continued momentum of his upper body eventually carries his lower body past the post.

All together, this is a pretty valiant effort. Rinne does things on this nearly awesome save that are both technically and athletically amazing. That's a big part of why it's so hard to find fault with him. My problem is that he is also capable of plays like this:

On this save against the Ducks on October 22, tweeted out by InGoal Magazine's Greg Balloch as part of his nightly #SixSaves, there isn't a single wasted motion. Rinne uses his long legs and large body to cover the net, and his flexibility and core strength to maintain vertical coverage with his glove. He doesn't lunge or reach, nor does he fall significantly forward, which would weaken his low post seal. This play on Corey Perry is just... beautiful.

Our play? Not exactly.

Pekka is completely different on this goal by Kulemin. There's just too much going on. He puts himself behind the play with an unnecessary reach for Nelson's initial shot. His remarkable recovery still gives him a decent chance of stopping the backside threat, but his attempt to react to the puck off of Kulemin's stick ulitmately creates the hole through which the shot beats him. I'd prefer he approach this recovery with the same discipline he demonstrates on Perry's chance.  Sometimes, you just have to use your 6'5" body and your insane reach to cover as much space as possible, and let the puck hit you because it simply has no choice. If Rinne's only intent on his recovery is to establish a blocking position against the post, Kulemin likely doesn't score, and the outcome of the game might have been different. 

This play, in the context of a fantastic start to the Predators' season, is a perfect example of what has always driven me crazy about Pekka Rinne. His skating skills, determination, and obvious athletic ability give him an excellent chance to make a difficult save on a high danger scoring chance, but the sum of his efforts is so inefficient that he allows the goal anyway. Unfair? I don't think so. Pekka Rinne is a top goalie in the National Hockey League, playing for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. In a playoff series, one goal like this can be the difference between moving on, or having plenty of time for pesäpallo.