The six-foot-five backbone of the Predators
NASHVILLE — Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne’s face right now is nearly impossible.
The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup final in his ninth full National Hockey League season.
“As a player, I feel like I’ve had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity,” Rinne said. “So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have.”
Teammates call the six-foot-five, 220-pound Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he’s probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenceman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.
Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single post-season behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguère for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne’s 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.
“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenceman Pernell (P.K.) Subban said.
The 19-year-old franchise has reached its first Stanley Cup Final behind Rinne’s standout performances.
After Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games Monday night, Rinne now is even stingier on home ice with a 7-1 record, 1.54 GAA and .947 save percentage. He made 38 saves on a night where Nashville took only 18 shots.
“Any time you need to close a series out, you know that as a goalie you got to be good and as a team you got to be good,” Rinne said.
The native of Kampele, Finland, has been better than good. He also has the skill to skate out to play the puck. With coach Peter Laviolette’s team clogging the neutral zone to slow opponents, Rinne is an extra (tall) layer of frustration waiting at the end of the ice for opponents who dump the puck in — even those high on the glass.
Anaheim defenceman Kevin Bieksa said Rinne will throw his body against the glass to knock the puck down so he can pass it out to a teammate essentially turning the goalie into another defender.
“You don’t see many goalies that aggressive,” Bieksa said. “And he’s gone out, he’s played a lot of pucks. And he’s good at it. One of their strengths, for sure.”
Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle noted Rinne had eight plays on the puck alone in the first period of Game 5, a 3-1 Nashville win that put the Predators up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.
“You can’t give him that type of opportunity,” Carlyle said.
Laviolette calls goaltender the most important position on the ice and he said Rinne’s confidence is a huge benefit for the team.
“And it gives you opportunities,” he said.
The only surprise was that it took Rinne this long.
Defenceman Mattias Ekholm says Rinne’s competitive streak comes out on the ice.
“He will put his foot down, and say, ‘Hey, this is my crease. This is where I am,’” Ekholm said.
Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, of Finland, stops a shot against the Anaheim Ducks during the Predators series win in Game 6.