2017 Western Conference Final Preview: Pekka Rinne vs John Gibson
The Western Conference Final will be a fascinating study of the instinctive, reactive style of goaltending. Both Pekka Rinne and John Gibson rely on reflexes and mobility to cover holes that more conservative goalies don’t open up.
These two are goalies at different points in their careers. Rinne is 34 and in his eleventh season in the NHL, his ninth as a starting goalie. Gibson, 23, in his first year as an NHL starter and was splitting time between the AHL and the NHL just last year. Rinne is adapting as he deals with aging and injury, incorporating a more positional mindset than he has had in the past. Gibson is still figuring out the limits of his rejection of structure.
Rinne has been playing some of the best hockey of his career over the past month. He had a very up and down 2016-2017 but has gotten his best results holding to a slightly more conservative initial depth than he has used through most of his time in the NHL.
Even with this change, Rinne remains one of the more aggressive goalies in the league, and at times he has reverted to older habits. But when he’s on, the increased efficiency shows not only in his ability to move across the ice, but also in the reduced need for him to reach and open up holes under the arms.
Rinne has also begun to incorporate the reverse vertical-horizontal selection (RVH) on post play more than ever before. Until this season it was a move he rarely used, possibly because it seems to put his highly active glove hand at a disadvantage. His tendency to default to a blocking glove position when on a blocker-side RVH can leave him stiff and awkward where he is usually fluid and flexible and delay reaction with his glove.
It will still be possible to open Rinne up on scramble plays. His instinct to reach with the glove – and come off his skates – on lateral plays leads to some intense scramble situations where reflex rules the day. As a result, 28% percent of his goals in the regular season included rebounds.
The key for Rinne will be to stay the course on depth, trusting technique as much as reflexes to make the stop. To do this, he’ll need his teammates to preserve his sightlines so that he can accurately read and track pucks. During the regular season 48% of his goals involved either a screen or a deflection or both, far more than any other playoff starter.
When he was healthy, Gibson had a great season behind a Ducks defense that did well at insulating him. He ended the regular season with some of the top statistics in the league, for all that he only played 52 games.
As a goalie, Gibson is bold, unpredictable, and flashy, often making stops that seem impossible right before giving up a goal through a hole that shouldn’t have been there. There are two elements to goaltending: knowing where the puck is going and being able to get in front of it. Or, in other terms, seeing and moving. Gibson excels at reading releases but can struggle with moving into proper position.
He has good initial positioning and stance, but when pre-shot movements require him to make a lot of adjustments, that can break down. At times excessive counter-rotation (when the upper body moves in the opposite direction from where the goalie is trying to go) and poor recoveries lead to delays in moving from one position to another, which puts him behind on plays with a lot of lateral movement or movement behind the net. Move the puck around the zone and those inefficiencies add up. This leaves him scrambling, relying on reflexes and luck to reach pucks from his belly or his back.
An example of this was the delay he showed in moving out of RVH, especially when the puck crossed behind the net, leading to 5 low-high goals against (where pre-shot movement went from near or below the goal line to above the bottom of the faceoff circles) in the Edmonton series.
The key for Gibson and the Ducks will be to minimize these inefficiencies. If the Ducks are able to insulate him the way they were through much of the regular season, he will do much better. Unfortunately, Gibson faced nearly twice as many HD shots in his 11 games in the first two rounds as Pekka Rinne did. Every bit of help he can get will make his job easier.
At his best, Gibson is quick, mobile, and responsive, and in the playoffs often a well-timed save can break a series wide open.