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He was supposed to be back a year ago, back from hip surgery, back to his old self. But then came an infection, another surgery, another rehab and the worst season of his NHL career. And then came something else, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist with a seven-year, $49 million contract.
“You come back, and in your own head, you think you’re going to be the same player that you’ve always been and you’re going to start where you left,” Pekka Rinne said. “When it doesn’t happen, it’s mentally pretty demanding.”
Rinne is finally back now, for real. Among the reasons the Nashville Predators are off to one of the best starts in their history – new coach, new players, new up-tempo style, hot rookie, better 5-on-5 play – it’s important that they have a healthy, happy, elite goalie again. He entered Tuesday night tied for the lead in wins (13), second in goals-against average (1.92) and third in save percentage (.930).
“He’s invaluable,” said Predators captain Shea Weber. “You see when he’s in the lineup how good we are.”
Rinne has been a workhorse. He played 64 games and posted a .930 save percentage in 2010-11, and he was a Vezina finalist. He played 73 games and posted a .923 save percentage in 2011-12, and he was a Vezina finalist again. He played 43 out of 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and …
His left hip wore on him. He was less than 100 percent. He posted a .910 save percentage, a career low. It was no coincidence that the Predators missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.
He had surgery that May. He didn’t have a full summer of training, didn’t get on the ice until August. When he came back, he had high expectations. But he gave up three goals on six shots in less than 10 minutes in the 2013-14 season opener against the St. Louis Blues, and he got pulled.
Just as he was finding his form in mid-October, he was sidelined again because of a bacterial infection that needed to be cleaned out. He missed four-and-a-half months of NHL action. He missed the Sochi Olympics, too. When he came back in March, he struggled. He played only 24 games and finished with a .902 save percentage, a new career low. It’s no coincidence that the Predators missed the playoffs again.
Coach Barry Trotz, who had been with the Predators since the beginning, who had helped name the team, was fired and ended up joining the Washington Capitals. Goalie coach Mitch Korn ended up going to Washington, too.
“It’s so much about your confidence when you play the game,” Rinne said. “For sure last year was frustrating. It was a tough year.”
The turnaround began in Minsk, Belarus. Rinne joined Finland for the world championships and found his game. He posted three shutouts and a .928 save percentage in nine games. He was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
For the first time in three years, he put in a full summer of training. He started skating earlier than he used to, worked harder in the gym than he used to and adjusted things to help his hip. He put on six pounds of muscle at age 31 going on 32. When he came back this time, he was ready, really ready, and the Predators were different.
General manager David Poile was unhappy they had been minus-21 at 5-on-5 in 2013-14. He said there was “not a chance” they would make the playoffs if that happened again. So he emphasized improvement in that area when he hired coach Peter Laviolette and acquired players like James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy.
The Predators have a faster-paced, more offensive style. They have a blossoming 20-year-old in Filip Forsberg. They have the firepower to come back. Entering Tuesday night, they were 13-5-2, with the fifth-best points percentage in the NHL. They were the best 5-on-5 team in the league at plus-19. Forsberg led the team and all rookies in scoring with 22 points and led the league in plus-minus at plus-20. Seven times they had allowed the first goal and won.
“I feel like this is pretty active style of game, really aggressive on the puck, on the forecheck,” Rinne said. “It’s nice to see. You obviously have to have the players to do that, and I feel like this year we have a lot of speed and guys can play that type of game. It’s been a lot of fun. They’re fast games we play, intense.”
But the key has not been goals for. It has been goals against. Entering Tuesday night, the Predators were 13th in offense – and even that was skewed by a 9-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs last Tuesday night. They were 24th on the power play. But they were second in defense, and their 27th-ranked PK hadn’t hurt them because they were the least-penalized team in the league.
They ranked among the leaders in possession metrics. “I think guys are just really making sure they’re detailed with what they do,” Laviolette said. “I still think you can be aggressive and be responsible. Our guys have done a pretty good job of doing both.”
They also ranked first in 5-on-5 save percentage at .947 – thanks mostly to Rinne, who was second among goalies with at least seven games played at .945. “There’s no question that psychologically you probably play a little bit different with Pekka in net than we did last year for 51 games when he wasn’t there,” Poile said.
There’s no question that psychologically Rinne is different than he was last year, too.
The doubt, it seems, is gone.
“Obviously it’s a big relief,” Rinne said. “It’s a big boost for my confidence.”
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