NASHVILLE — When the Nashville Predators were dispatched in the first round of the playoffs last season by eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, it was both a cautionary tale about the false guarantees of a strong regular season and a reminder of the fleeting nature of greatness.
The Predators spent the first two-thirds of last season making a case for themselves as the top team in the league.
They were led by goaltender Pekka Rinne, who was likewise making a case for Vezina Trophy consideration.
Then, just before the All-Star break, Rinne went down with a knee injury. It wasn’t serious, Rinne recalled. He considered it a speed bump compared to the hip injury and subsequent infection that cost him all but 24 games in the 2013-14 season.
At the time of the injury, the Predators were 29-9-4 and Rinne led the NHL in wins, boasting a 1.96 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
But when Rinne returned less than a month later, it was as though the mojo had leaked from the entire team.
He refused to blame the injury, but Rinne admitted the almost inexplicable drop in play that plagued the team as it went 18-16-6 and lost out on the Central Division title remains mystifying.
“It had an effect on my play, too,” Rinne said. “I wasn’t at that same level right away and took time to get back. Also as a team, I don’t know, we talked about it a lot. It’s tough because you play so well and all of a sudden we start to just win a game, but then lose three games in a row, then win a game, [lose] three games in a row.
“It was mentally hard. At that point you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening? What’s happening? We’re going into the playoffs and what’s going on?’ ”
The Predators actually played pretty well against the Blackhawks, chasing starterCorey Crawford with an explosion of goals, but Rinne wasn’t his normal self and finished the series with a .909 save percentage and 2.68 GAA, as Crawford andScott Darling combined for the series win.
“Just timely goals,” Rinne said.
Timely goals on the part of the Blackhawks, and not so many timely goals from the Predators.
“But it was a good experience for our team too,” Rinne said. “Just to learn from that and just to see how Chicago handled things. They have a lot of experience. They never seem to be out of it or they never seem to panic. So I think in that sense, it was a good learning experience, but then again it was a big disappointment because you felt like you actually played well enough to win the series, so it was a little bit of, it was a tough, tough thing to handle when you lose that series.”
Rinne left Tennessee after the series and joined his Finnish mates at the World Championships, where he established a modern record for shutout hockey at the tournament, denying scorers for 237 minutes, 5 seconds while recording three shutouts.
He has started this season in like fashion, leading the Predators to a 7-1-1 start and an early lead in the Central Division.
Captain Shea Weber is the face of the franchise with his imposing physical style and booming slap shot, but make no mistake this is as much Rinne’s team.
“I think that’s the way we view it, too,” Predators general manager David Poile said. “That it’s Shea and Pekka’s team. From seniority and mostly importantly from performance. I think when you think of the Predators, those are the two players you think of.
“It’s a cliché of all clichés, but he gives you a chance to win every game, but I know our players truly believe that. It’s one of the reasons why we win.”
The native of Kempele, Finland, is calm and thoughtful, a kind of gentle soul.
“What you’ve seen over the years and once you’ve met him is exactly how he is,” Poile said. “He’s a fabulous person. Always has the time for everybody. Terrific in the community. Sometimes we want to say goalies have some quirks or that they’re kind of unapproachable. Pekka’s the exact opposite of that.”
And so here’s the thing: On Nov. 3, Rinne will turn 33. It is the time in a goaltender’s life when he understands there probably have been more games played than are left to play in his career. And with that realization comes a certain sense of urgency, an understanding that now is the time to make a serious run at a championship.
“It’s funny how your mind changes along the way. I took a little bit longer road to get to the NHL first of all,” Rinne said, referring to his eighth-round selection in 2004, a round that no longer exists in the draft.
“You dream about the Stanley Cup, of course. But the biggest thing in your mind is you just want to make sure you play well enough to stay in the league. You want to make sure that the coaches trust you, the GM trusts you, your teammates trust you. It’s a little bit of a different mindset. Then you start getting older and all of a sudden … your mind simplifies it, I think. What are you playing for?”
And it’s not for Vezina Trophies or even contracts now that Rinne has signed a long-term deal that carries him for three more seasons after this one. There is only one thing to play for when you are a player like Rinne and a team like the Predators, who have overcome much to establish themselves as a bona fide hockey town but have yet to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs.
“The only thing you want to do is win something. You want to leave your mark that way,” Rinne said.
“I think when you look at the best players in the game and the history of the game, I always look at the guys, all of those guys, they always won the Cup.”
Chris Mason played alongside Rinne in Nashville before moving on to St. Louis, Atlanta and Winnipeg. He made a brief stop in Nashville before playing the past two seasons in Europe. He has recently become a broadcast analyst and understands the urgency of which Rinne speaks.
“When I think of Pekka Rinne, the first thing I think of is that he is just one of the nicest, most down-to-earth, humblest guys I’ve ever played with,” Mason said. “But he’s also one of the most competitive guys I know.”
Some goalies, especially those who play as much as Rinne does, will practice to stay in a routine and work up a sweat.
“He’s not like that at all,” Mason said. “Every single shot. Every scenario. Warmup drills with coach before and after practice. He’s like a bulldog. He’s got that fire.”
While the 6-foot-5 Rinne might be an understated counterweight to Weber, it is not just a fanciful notion that this is equally Rinne’s team. The two are good friends and have been sitting next to each other on team flights for years now. They are the last holdovers from the days when the Predators began to emerge from the expansion days and established themselves as a perennial playoff team.
“I still see the same competitive guy on the ice,” Weber said. “Doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s practice or a game, he’s still working as hard as anybody out there. He’s as good as they come in the league, too. We’re lucky that we’ve had him for so long. Sometimes he goes unnoticed, I don’t know what the reason is, but he’s a big reason why we’re successful every year.”
Lots of great players never get to the end of the Stanley Cup road. That’s what makes the journey so special.
And I joke with Rinne that I’m not rushing him into the twilight of his career. Not yet anyway.
He laughs but there’s some iron in the laughter, the understanding that if it’s going to be his time and the Predators’ time, that time must come sooner than later.
“I realize that I feel like I’m still in my prime, but yeah I totally agree that the window might be — who knows?” Rinne said. “To me, my moment is right now. This season. That’s my mindset that this is our year and going to try and do everything I can to help this team and hopefully go a long way.”
Poille figures Rinne’s got lots of time left to continue to play at an elite level, but the Predators GM admitted he doesn’t mind there is some urgency being felt by the team’s star goalie.
“I’m glad he’s thinking that way,” Poile said with a smile.