VANCOUVER — Goaltender Pekka Rinne had never experienced anything quite like the devastation of losing in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
“I haven’t had that kind of feeling,” said Rinne, the No. 1 goalie for the Nashville Predators. “It was so empty.”
Just as a goaltender has to refocus after getting scored on, Rinne tried not to dwell too long on the Game 6 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 11 that ended his Stanley Cup dream.
Six months removed from that disappointment, Rinne said he is better for having gone through the emotional ups and downs of getting past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in his NHL career.
“For sure it gives you confidence,” Rinne said. “At least for me, you can use it as inspiration and strength coming into this season. You know that no matter what the situation is, you can overcome it and you don’t necessarily stress about the game so much. You try to stay in a good place and treat it as a good challenge, not worrying about what happens. It’s all mental, right?”
The mental aspect is a big part of how a goaltender performs, but it’s not like Rinne is new to the job. The 35-year-old has played 532 NHL games in 10 seasons with the Predators, has been a Vezina Trophy finalist three times (2011, 2012 and 2015), and was named MVP of the 2014 IIHF World Championship after helping Finland win the silver medal.
So it’s a little surprising to hear him admit to getting a mental boost from the playoff run, which included a .930 save percentage in 22 games.
“Our mind is the hardest thing to control,” Rinne said. “You go into the third period, and if there is a voice in your head talking to you, I think everybody has gone through those things where, all of a sudden, you are afraid to make a mistake or you start not focusing on your own thing and start worrying about the guys around you. Having just the peace of mind that you don’t have to prove anything to anybody else but yourself helps.”
Rinne’s confidence should not be mistaken for complacency. Renewed self-assurance may be playing a role in a 17-4-3 start this season and a .927 save percentage that ranks fourth among starters, but Rinne also worked with Predators goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok to make a subtle, but significant, change to his game.
Rinne’s stance has narrowed, with his chest up and his feet closer together than in the past, at least when play is outside the top of the face-off circles. It’s a noticeable contrast to the hunched-over, spread-out stance that returns as the puck gets closer to his net. The changes are the latest in an ongoing effort to quiet and calm the active and aggressive game that has been his trademark without losing the explosive reactive abilities that have defined his career.
“Personally, I always try to evolve and [not] be afraid to try [to] change my game,” Rinne said. “I feel like this year I have really made the change and you can see it in my game. Obviously, it doesn’t always translate into how well you play, but I feel it, and even watching my clips after my games it looks way more comfortable, in a controlled way, and more confident.”
The adjustments have had a real effect on the mechanics of his skating.
When Rinne’s stance was wider and lower, his tendency was to back into long lateral plays, starting those movements with a sweeping reverse C-cut on his lead skate as he rotated into his new angle while moving. Now, with his skates under him more, it’s easier to turn into his new angle before pushing because he no longer needs to clear that lead leg.
“It’s a way more efficient way to play. The game is so quick and it helps you keep your point of gravity in the middle and it’s easier to move,” Rinne said. “It’s harder to move when you are hunched over. When it’s close in front of me, then I just use my instincts, but when it’s a little further away I try to take a step back and don’t be too aggressive. The game feels a little slower too. I feel like it’s a mental thing too, almost like you are in the driver’s seat looking.”
Rinne still gets more locked in low and wide as the play gets in tight, a stance he said is like a loaded spring. Spending less time coiled up like that during each game should make it easier to maintain his pace to start 65 games this season.
“I don’t feel as tired after games. I feel like it can play every night,” Rinne said. “For sure, it’s a big change.”
That Rinne was eager to make a drastic adjustment so soon after his first Cup Final appearance says a lot about his desire to get to another instead of dwelling too long on whether he’d get back.