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Season approaches, grind looming for NHL's goaltenders

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The speculation started even before the Nashville Predators lost in the Western Conference quarterfinals last season, that goaltender Pekka Rinne was working a bit too much during the regular season and he was going to be worn out for the games that matter most.

The Predators talked about whether fatigue played a role in their ouster from the postseason, then dismissed the idea.

So does Rinne.

''I'm not too worried about the number,'' said Rinne, who started 64 games last season and was still tied only for seventh among the workhorse goalies in the NHL. ''Obviously going deeper this season, you want to feel fresh and you want to be able to give everything you have and help this team. But in the past, I've played a lot of games, and I feel like that helps me, too, having that experience.''

Balancing a goalie's workload over an 82-game season is tricky. Earning a playoff berth usually means playing the best goalie as much as possible - even when the team is going to need him in the long, long postseason where he is the one player who can steal a game and even a series in the chase for a Stanley Cup championship.

So how much is too much?

Nobody played more games in the NHL last season than Braden Holtby. The Washington goalie was in net 73 games, and he also led the league winning 91.1 percent of the Capitals' games with 41 of 45 victories. Holtby said he simply feels better when he plays more.

''If you can just keep rolling, it makes things easier,'' Holtby said. ''But at the same time, it's great if you're not getting fatigued, mentally fatigued, with injuries or whatnot, so that just depends on the season. You can't plan on those things. You just take it one day at a time and see where it ends up.''

Holtby's workload was on Washington coach Barry Trotz's mind when he ran into Martin Brodeur at the NHL draft in June. Brodeur started 78 games for the New Jersey Devils in 2006-07 and 77 games in three other seasons. Only Grant Fuhr started more games in a single season with 79 for St. Louis in 1995-96, and Brodeur won two of his three Stanley Cups in seasons he started 72 and 73 games.

Trotz said Brodeur believed he got into a rhythm playing game after game, and off days hampered the run. Trotz saw how hard Brodeur worked on a day off in Nashville while coaching the Predators. Brodeur took part in the Devils' morning skate and kept working, still on the ice when Trotz returned from lunch stopping possibly 400 pucks compared to 25 he might have faced in the game.

Brodeur suggested most goalies can play 70 games a season, a number posted by many in the Hall of Fame.

''I guess `a body in motion stays in motion' type thing,'' Trotz said.

Patrick Roy always tried to talk coaches into letting him play more, only to be kept around 60 games per season (his career high was 68 games played in 1993-94). Now coaching Colorado, Roy is using that approach with Semyon Varlamov.

Managing travel and the time change is a bigger issue for Western Conference teams, especially with goalies stuck on planes for hours. Roy left Varlamov at home for a preseason game at Calgary, and he noted the close proximity for Brodeur and the Devils to teams like the Rangers, Flyers and Islanders.

''It's the traveling you have to look at,'' Roy said. ''Varly will tell us. We'll see. We'll manage that.''

New Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma wanted Marc-Andre Fleury playing no more than 65 games when he coached the Pittsburgh Penguins. Out of the league last season, Bylsma said he watched closely as goalies played 30 games or more in a row with games stacking up to 70 for others. Jonathan Quick started 71 of his 72 games as Los Angeles missed the playoffs, while Tuukka Rask started 67 of his 70 games for Boston, which also missed the postseason.

''I don't know what the number is,'' Bylsma said. ''And maybe there's different numbers for different goalies, and maybe there's different concerns. But we did look at it, and I was pretty closely watching some of the scenarios last year to see what happened. You see some of those goalies when they went into the playoffs.''

After playing in 73 games, Holtby was in net for 13 of 14 playoff games as Washington lost in the second round.

Devan Dubnyk set the standard last season playing 38 straight games after Minnesota acquired him from Arizona in January. Dubnyk started 39 of 40 games overall with a 1.78 GAA, and the Wild went 27-9-2 with him in net. Dubnyk said he felt good during that stretch, needing only practices off between games to recuperate. Dubnyk then played every playoff game as the Wild beat St. Louis before being swept by Chicago.

The rush of stopping pucks under the lights sure helps a goalie forget the sore hips and knees.

''It's nothing that every single guy who plays in the league doesn't deal with,'' Dubnyk said.

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