Pekka Rinne back to being Nashville's ace in the goal

Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35), of Finland, defends on a shot as Dallas Stars left wing Antoine Roussel (21) of France watches during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014, in Dallas. The Predators won 3-2. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Pekka Rinne is sort of like an ace pitcher in Major League Baseball. When he was healthy, whenever the Predators needed a big-time start from their goalie to stem a losing skid, they got one from Rinne.

“He’s gotta be Kershaw. He’s the best in the league,” noted baseball fan and All-Star defenseman Shea Weber said. “He pulls a great game every night. We don’t have to wait one out of every five days. We’re fortunate he can play for us every night.”

Fortunately for the Predators, Rinne is again channeling his inner ‘claw’ this season. The netminder has been an ace, a stopper, an early Vezina and Hart Trophy possibility, and the backbone of what has surprisingly been one of the top teams in the Western Conference this year.

“He makes the whole difference,” Predators radio analyst and former associate coach Brent Peterson said. “He makes the save when you have to. He makes the save at the right time. Sometimes he makes all the saves and wins the game that way. He has been terrific for about six or seven games now.”

His return to form from two years of hip injuries has goalie geeks also oozing from their salivary glands.

With Rinne this year, the difference has just simply been health, offseason conditioning and training.

The previous two offseasons, Rinne either didn’t have training camp (the 2012-13 lockout season) or health (he had a hip arthroscopy during the summer before 2013-14). It also didn’t help that he missed most of 2013-14 after the surgically repaired hip betrayed him and became dangerously infected with E.Coli bacteria.

When he came back, he looked OK, but he just wasn’t top form with a 2.77 goals against average and .902 save percentage.

“I can’t even compare (this year) to last year – being out so long and coming back and being … especially conditioning wise, kind of halfway what I should be probably,” Rinne said.

Instead of packing it in after the Predators missed the playoffs, Rinne went to the World Championships in Minsk, Belarus, where he was named tournament MVP and regained his confidence. This led into an offseason training program where he toned up, and regained the explosiveness in his 6-foot-5 legs, to go along with his already dynamic glove hand. This year he has a 1.81 goals against average and .935 save percentage.

“I had a really good summer,” Rinne said. “The biggest thing is it increases your confidence. You know you can play the game and you’re not going to be so tired that you can’t play.”

But there were still some mental hurdles coming into this year. After so many issues with his hip, Rinne still needed to test himself out against NHL competition – be it either in training camp or the regular season. Essentially he needed to know if the hip was square.

“It was a little bit different, struggling with something like that for the first time in your life or career,” Rinne said. “It was a little bit different but I never thought ‘this is it.’ This year I wanted to get a good start, but other than that I wasn’t really scared about it.”

Can Rinne keep up this pace? Backup netminder Carter Hutton is capable, but he’s 0-1-1, and does not have the same type of skill as Rinne. And coming off two hip operations, it probably wouldn’t be prudent for coach Peter Laviolette to ride Rinne like Zorro all year. Then again, maybe that’s his only course of action, at least while Rinne is playing so well.

“He’s playing great. The same way he has been for us in the past when he is healthy … he has been awesome,” Weber said. “He’s a big reason we’re successful this year.”

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