Nikolai Khabibulin, having a Phoenix-like resurrection in Edmonton despite losses in 10 of his past 12 starts, has fewer problems. Since winning the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and signing a budget-wrecking four-year, $27 million contract with the Blackhawks the following summer, Khabibulin basically had been taking a seven-year victory lap. Now he has a commendable .919 save percentage playing behind a team that can be slovenly in its own end. Hands up, please, if you saw this outbreak of competence coming after an off-season in which the goalie did time in the Maricopa County Jail for "extreme DUI." (O.K., the Tent City jail in Arizona wasn't Attica. He spent the first half of his 30-day sentence in a bunk, getting 12-hour releases on weekdays. During his first day in stir he read The Da Vinci Code.) "Mentally it's a little bit better this year because that stuff is over," says Khabibulin, 39, who had a losing streak of 14 games with the Oilers last season.
The nobody-knows-anything lunacy hardly stopped with Khabibulin. Elliott, a 3.34 goals-against-average whipping boy in Ottawa and Colorado in 2010--11, has taken a share of the net away from Jaroslav Halak, whom St. Louis acquired and signed to a four-year, $15 million contract after the goalie dragged Montreal to the '10 semifinals. Halak, who has elevated his play beyond the approximate level of a sieve after a dreadful first month, still has allowed about half a goal more per game than Elliott (2.17 to 1.68), who is working for $600,000 this year.
"We don't give up a lot of shots, and we're pretty good defensively," Blues G.M. Doug Armstrong says. "Elliott's facing less of a barrage than last year, and he's stopping the ones coming at him.... But there's no question goal's the toughest position to get a handle on. It starts with the draft. With a defenseman or forward, if he doesn't ultimately meet 80 percent of expectations, he can still do other things on the team. If a goalie doesn't meet expectations, he goes from the ice to the bench. You're either right or wrong."
Or lucky. When the Predators were considering Rinne in 2004, three years after his first year of draft eligibility, assistant G.M. Ray Shero flew to Finland to scout the goalie, who was then backing up future Wild goalie Niklas Bäckström for Karpat Oulu. Shero, now the Penguins' G.M., never saw Rinne make a save other than in warmups. On the recommendation of scout Janne Kekäläinen, Nashville picked Rinne in the eighth round, 258th overall. Kekäläinen was more hopeful than confident, having seen him play only twice—and the second time Rinne was pulled after allowing five goals in two periods.
Alexander Ovechkin swerves inside the Predators' defense early in the third period of a scoreless game, freeing himself for a 25-foot snap shot from the edge of the left face-off circle. With the puck and maybe the game on his stick, the Capitals' winger, with time to pick a spot, violates the third rule of sport: Rule 1: Do not pitch to Albert Pujols with an open base; Rule 2: Do not try to fathom Tim Tebow's mojo; and Rule 3: Do not test Pekka Rinne's glove. Ovechkin's snapper disappears into Rinne's oversized mitt.
"The only [athlete] with a better glove," Nashville assistant G.M. Paul Fenton says, "was Brooks Robinson."
Rinne's white Reebok trapper is a repository of broken dreams. His glove saves are pure, untainted by any Patrick Roy posing for the cameras. They are models of efficiency, even if an overreliance on his glove implies an abiding, and maybe excessive, pride.
Rinne instinctually tries to catch everything. He often scoops pucks like grounders instead of knocking them to the corner with his stick and reaches across his body for a glove save when he could simply fend off the puck with his blocker. Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn shrugs. "When someone can do something really, really special," he asks, "why would you try to coach him out of it?"
Korn tracks goalie touches, and he says the Predators retain possession 88% of the time when Rinne handles the puck. Although Korn concedes there are no objective standards for his homemade stat, he adds, "If a forward or defenseman kept possession 88 percent of the time, he'd be a superstar." When Rinne flew across the crease to foil the Canucks' Kevin Bieksa in overtime of the second game of their playoff series last spring, which Nashville would ultimately win 2--1, coach Barry Trotz suggested NFL Films set the save to music.
"So we're trading chances in the third with the Capitals last night, and I'm thinking with all the scorers over there, one puck is bound to get past him," Trotz says the day after Rinne's stoning of Ovechkin. "We're a little limited in the offensive part"—no Predator had more than 50 points last season and the team currently ranks 14th in goals per game—"but Peks is the Big Eraser. He cleans up our mistakes, allows us to play with added risk."