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Juuse Saros

As much credit as head coach John Hynes deserves for the job he’s done driving the Nashville Predators’ “competitive rebuild” this season, he deserves an equal amount of criticism for his handling of Juuse Saros.

The 26-year-old goalie, who had never started more than 35 games in a season at the NHL level prior to this year, has already seen a 55-percent increase in his workload from last season (35 starts) to this year (64 starts).

After allowing three goals on 31 shots in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena, Hynes went with Saros again on Sunday at Bridgestone against the St. Louis Blues in a decision he said wasn’t taken lightly.

“You have to make decisions all the time and we look at everything when you make the decisions,” Hynes said of his decision to start Saros in back-to-back games. “You don’t make them on a whim, and it was an early game, it was over 24 hours rest, it was another early game, there was no travel, you’re home, he feels good, so that’s why we made the decision.”

Saros surrendered four goals on 20 shots over 29:29 and was yanked mid-second period for David Rittich.

It was the second time Saros was pulled from a game early this year. It was also the second time he’d started on zero days rest, also doing so on Dec. 16 and 17. 

But the Predators are at the point in the season where they can’t afford to play with fire. Regardless of Saros’ selflessness, the Predators owe it to him — and their playoff chances — to ensure that he’s being protected down the stretch.

The Predators are in a race with the Dallas Stars, who have a game in hand and occupy the first wild card spot, and the Vegas Golden Knights, who they lead by four points for the second wild card.

With five of the final six regular season games against playoff teams, the temptation will be there for Hynes to start Saros in potentially all five of those games. But at what point does working him that much shift from necessary to reckless?

Saros has faced the most power play shots (349); the second-most shots against (2,023), saves (1,861), and ice time (3,783:33); the fourth-most high-danger shots against (494), and he ranks sixth in shots against per 60 (32.2).

In just his second season as Nashville’s full-time goalie, Saros has already started 29 more games and played nearly 1,733 more minutes than he did last year. The effects of his rigorous schedule are already starting to take their toll.

In the first 32 games of the season, Saros had a .926 save percentage, a 2.35 goals-against average and allowed four or more goals in six games. In his last 32 games, his save percentage dipped to .914, his goals-against average rose to 2.81 and he’s allowed four or more goals in 12 starts.

The Predators have asked Saros to bail them out more times this year than anyone can probably count. Now, they might have to return the favor down the stretch and steal a game or two with Rttich (who has wins over the Blues, Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild) to allow their do-it-all goalie a chance to rest heading into the postseason.

Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_