Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne making all the difference in first-round showdown

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – Two weeks before the playoffs began, Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne stood in the visitors' dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, sizing up his likely first-round opponent, the Detroit Red Wings.

"Just cross your fingers," he said with a laugh.

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He talked about Pavel Datsyuk ("extremely skilled"), Henrik Zetterberg ("always plays hard"), Johan Franzen ("great shooter"), Valtteri Filppula ("has been amazing"), Jiri Hudler ("has played well").

"And …"

He sighed and looked back at the white board behind him.

"You go through the whole lineup," he continued, talking about Todd Bertuzzi ("big body but still soft hands") and the rest. "They have good balance throughout their lineup and plus a really good goalie."

Ah, but Rinne is a really good goalie, too. Really, really good. So good that he led the Preds back to the Joe, where the Wings had the NHL's best home record in the regular season; so good that he stared down all that talent, which generated the league's seventh-best offense in the regular season; so good that he posted back-to-back victories, putting the Wings on the brink of their first first-round loss since 2006.

Rinne made 40 saves Tuesday night in the Predators' 3-1 victory, giving them a 3-1 series lead. He made 41 saves in Game 3, a 3-2 victory. He made 35 saves in Game 1, a 3-2 victory.

"He's gotten better and better, and he's still getting better," said Predators captain Shea Weber, who has played with Rinne since they were minor-leaguers in Milwaukee. "I think he's even got another level."

Another level?

If he does, then he can carry the Predators deep into the playoffs, maybe all the way to the Stanley Cup, and maybe then he will earn the attention he deserves.

Listen to his position coach, Mitch Korn, who worked with the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek when he won four of his six Vezina Trophies as the NHL's best goaltender. Rinne was a Vezina finalist for the first time last season. He should be a Vezina finalist again this year.

"The two of them are very comparable in that they're busy goalies, they like being busy and they're who the team relies on," Korn said. "That's what top guys do. They make good teams very good."

The Predators were wise when they signed Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension earlier this season. Ryan Suter can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Weber can follow next season. In the worst-case scenario, they will lose both of their star defensemen. But they'll still have Rinne.

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They'll still have their foundation. They'll still have the goaltender who led the NHL in games played (73), wins (43), saves (1,987) and shots faced (2,153) this season, while posting a 2.39 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. They'll still have a chance.

Even with Suter and Weber now, the Predators have learned to rely on Rinne. He went 14-0-2 when stopping 35 shots or more in the regular season. He went 5-0-2 when facing 40 shots or more – with a 1.66 goals-against average and .958 save percentage.

"Usually the game gets a little bit easier when you face more pucks," Rinne said. "It almost feels like the other team is just shooting the puck more. They're trying to create those rebounds, and that's probably the area in my game I feel comfortable in, picking up pucks and making that kind of save."

This was vintage Rinne in Game 4, using his outstanding glove to scoop up pucks like a shortstop scoops up baseballs, and using his size, athleticism and awareness to his advantage. Early in the first period, he leaned to his left while sticking out his long right pad to cover the other side of the net. Datsyuk threw a pass across the crease to Danny Cleary. Rinne reacted. Bang, bang. Save.

"When you're 6-foot-5, you've got an enormous range," Korn said. "He's got big pads, he's got big legs and he's very agile. He read it, which is what started it. If you don't read it, you don't stop it. It doesn't matter how big you are. So he read it and took care of it."

Rinne made 39 other saves. Which was the best?

"All 39 of them," said Predators defenseman Kevin Klein. "I don't know. I can't pick one."

Now, like all good goaltenders, Rinne needed some luck. Predators center Mike Fisher swiped a puck out of the crease just before it crossed the goal line, after Filppula deflected a shot past Rinne in the first period. David Legwand got away with covering the puck with his glove in Nashville’s crease in the second period – but the officials missed it and no penalty shot was awarded. Hudler hit a goal post in the third.

The Red Wings carried the play most of the night. They had seven power plays. But the only goal they scored was deflected at least once, maybe twice. On the power play in the third, defenseman Niklas Kronwall fired from the point. The puck appeared to go off a Predator. It was definitely tipped by Hudler, who was standing right in front of Rinne, tying the game, 1-1.

And consider this: When reporters asked Wings coach Mike Babcock about the weird winning goal, he turned the conversation back to Rinne. Martin Erat skated up ice late in the third and drew three Wings into the left-wing corner – Hudler, Nicklas Lidstrom and Ian White. Goaltender Jimmy Howard came way out of his net, too. Erat threw the puck into the slot, and Klein buried it into an open net.

"Now, there's a whole bunch of mistakes on the other side, but they're nullified," Babcock said. "You don't even know who made them because the goalie put his pad down."

The Predators have work to do. Not only do they need to take some of the pressure off Rinne, they need to generate more offense up front. Four of their last seven goals have come from defensemen – two of them from Klein, who entered the playoffs with only 13 goals in his NHL career, regular season and playoffs combined.

But the Red Wings are in trouble. Lidstrom, playing on a bad ankle, looks mortal for the first time in … ever. He isn't killing penalties. He actually whiffed on a puck at the blue line and turned over another puck in Game 4. For all the pressure the Wings have put on the Predators, they haven't been able to score.

"The bottom line is, we spent a ton of time in their zone and we had the puck a lot tonight, but their goaltender was good," Babcock said. "We've got to find a way to get it past him. That's it.”

Just cross your fingers.

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