As Juuse Saros limped down the tunnel toward the Predators’ locker room with the help of a few trainers, it suddenly felt as if Nashville’s hopes of reaching the postseason went with him.
That feeling amplified when backup David Rittich surrendered the game-tying goal to Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk with 0.1 seconds left in the third period and eventually the game-winner in overtime.
If not for a Dallas Stars shootout win over the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday night, Nashville might still be fighting for its playoff life without perhaps its most important player.
"I don't have any update on him," Predators coach John Hynes said of Saros after the game. "He's still getting evaluated. I haven't talked to the trainer or anything yet, so we'll probably have more on that [Wednesday]."
The Predators announced Wednesday afternoon that Saros will not play in their final two regular season games against the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes. That isn’t exactly breaking news given he was expected to rest those two games anyway as the team had already clinched its playoff berth.
But if Saros does indeed miss significant time beyond the regular season, the logical assumption is Rittich would become Nashville’s de facto starter for the first round of the playoffs against either the Flames or Colorado Avalanche.
However, given Rittich’s body of work over the 2021-22 season — 5-3-4 in 11 starts this year with a 3.56 goals-against average and .882 save percentage — Milwaukee Admirals goaltender Connor Ingram might be the team’s best bet moving forward.
Rittich has a save percentage below .900 in seven of his 11 starts this season, and he’s allowed four or more goals in five of those starts. Against playoff teams he’s been below average, surrendering a combined 28 goals with an .891 save percentage over seven starts; Nashville won just three of those seven games.
Ingram, on the other hand, provides the Predators with something Rittich doesn’t: unpredictability.
At age 29, and seven seasons into his NHL career, Rittich is what he is, which is mediocre. His 69-43-20 record, 2.89 goals-against average and .905 save percentage speak for itself.
But Ingram, who’s only 25, could be a wild card. Although he only has two games of NHL experience, including a 33-save performance in a 5-2 win over the second-place Minnesota Wild in his first career start, he was one of the top goaltenders in the American Hockey League this year.
He leads the AHL with five shutouts, and he ranked second in wins (30), 12th in save percentage (.917) and 17th in goals-against average (2.70). He also led the league in starts (54), minutes played (3,195:15), saves (1,541) and shots faced (1,685), and he could be positioned to hold up better during a playoff series than Rittich.
While neither the Avalanche nor Flames are an easy draw in the first round of the postseason, starting Ingram at least affords Nashville the prospect of stealing a game or two.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_