The Stanley Cup Playoffs have their mythic qualities. Champions, adorned in armor and wielding weapons, battling each other during a long quest for the right to drink from a holy grail. That sort of thing.
As Pekka Rinne sees it, the Nashville Predators just completed their third of four trials in this mythic journey, each with their own distinct challenges. “
Against Chicago it was about speed. Against St. Louis it was about defense. Here it was about physical hockey,” he said, moments after the Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks in six games, winning their first Western Conference championship in franchise history.
The labors changed each round. But there was one constant for Nashville: Pekka Rinne.
He has a .941 save percentage and a 1.70 goals-against average for the postseason. He’s made 446 saves on 474 shots. The playoffs have been filled with games like Game 6 for Rinne, in which he turned back 38 Anaheim shots and carried his team to victory. If the Predators are blessed to win the Stanley Cup, they could hand him the Conn Smythe during the first period of the clincher and no one would think twice about it – that’s how valuable he’s been.
None of this happens were it not for Rinne, and we say this for one specific reason: The Chicago Blackhawks series.
The working premise for the Predators and their postseason run is that they were a middling regular season team that found themselves in the postseason. The same held for Rinne, whose .918 save percentage in 61 starts was better than the previous season but who was inconsistent month-to-month. But boy, did he find a groove in March and April, with a .932 save percentage in his final 13 games.
But the Predators draw the last wild card spot in the West, which means they draw the Blackhawks in Round 1. So what does Rinne do? He stops 59 shots in two games in Chicago, posting back-to-back shutout wins over the Blackhawks.
Away they went. And now they’re playing for the Stanley Cup.
“It’s almost like a thing you don’t want to think about too much,” said Rinne. “You have been holding it back, and in the back of your head you’ve been thinking about the finals and then when the buzzer goes off, it’s an amazing feeling.”
Much love will be given to David Poile, the team’s general manager, for constructing this roster, and Rinne is one of his front office’s greatest achievements. He was selected No. 258 overall in the 2004 NHL Draft, in the eighth round. There were 27 goalies taken ahead of him – Rinne was drafted behind Japan’s Yutaka Fukufuji, taken by the Los Angeles Kings at No. 238.
Scout Janne Kekalainen, brother of Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, is credited for finding that diamond in the rough after he was passed over in three previous drafts. Hell, he wasn’t even starting for his local team – he was Niklas Backstrom’s backup.
Rinne was a product of both the Finnish and Nashville goalie factories. In the latter, coach Mitch Korn helped hone his skills. He had the height and the athleticism, as well as an aggressive style. In 2007, the Predators traded away starter Tomas Vokoun to Florida because they were confident Chris Mason and Rinne could take over. By 2008, Rinne did, starting 52 games and finishing fourth in the Calder voting.
Rinne played 508 regular-season games and 64 playoff games before getting his shot at the Stanley Cup. At 34 years old, he spans eras for this franchise, first making up one third of the team’s Trinity with defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, under coach Barry Trotz.
In 2011, Rinne was handed a controversial 7-year, $49 million contract extension by the Predators. Controversial in duration and in cap hit. As large contracts do, it’s come to define him, although the motivations for that deal — the looming new CBA, the way Poile wanted that contract to entice Suter and Weber to remain in Nashville — are somewhat lost in time.
But that contract meant that Rinne would be around to backstop this version of the Predators, with Suter a distant memory and Weber swapped for P.K. Subban, and a slew of younger players making an impact on the roster.
“The last two, three years, we’ve been on the right track. We’ve done a really good job drafting players and acquiring players. It shows now,” said Rinne.
Rinne has been a Vezina finalist three times, the last time in 2014-15 when he had a .923 save percentage.
But here’s the thing about Pekka Rinne, perhaps the most remarkable thing: About a year ago, no one thought this guy could be a playoff hero.
No, most people thought this guy was done.
In January 2016, from Mark Harris at Today’s Slaphsot:
“It has become clearer throughout this season that he cannot and should not be relied upon in the same sense he has in years past.” That was from a column called, “When Is It Time to Panic About Pekka Rinne?”
From Puck Stuff and Jeffrey MacDonald on July 19, 2016:
“There is an elephant in the room: the performance of Pekka Rinne. In the last three years (excluding goalies that have played less than 3400 minutes, which roughly equals 82 games. It leaves 42 goalies, a reasonable approximation of how many above replacement level goalies there are in the NHL at any given time), Rinne ranks 41st out of 42 goalies in adjusted Fenwick save percentage.”
Message boards were lit up with “what’s wrong with Pekka Rinne?” chatter. There had been talk that there was a hitch in his game that was being exploited. There were the questions about whether he was too fatigued, past his prime.
There were questions whether it was his turn in the Nashville Predators’ circle of goalie life, as Mike Dunham begot Tomas Vokoun who begot Chris Mason who begot Pekka Rinne who will one day yield to Juuse Saros.
And he will, but just not yet. No, it turns out Rinne has something left. The panic has subsided. The questions about him had been back-burnered. The critics have gone as silent as his opponents’ offensives in the 2017 playoffs.
“If you’re healthy, if your mind is fresh, if you’re motivated, if your body is still doing the things the mind wants it to do, that’s what matters. To be honest with you, I still feel young,” said Rinne before the season to The Tennessean.
And so the mythic journey continues. The grizzled leader that others had deemed unworthy of the task, bucking those expectations and winning the day, seemingly getting sprier the closer he gets to the holy grail.
Pekka Rinne, four wins from the Stanley Cup. Pekka Rinne, the reason the Predators can taste it.
“Amazing feeling, obviously. It’s a dream come true,” said Rinne. “But it’s a funny thing, though. When this is happening around us, you still feel hungry, and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. And you’ve been working for that for a long, long time,” he said.
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