By Kevin Woodley – NHL.com Correspondent
VANCOUVER — For Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, the chance to play in his first NHL All-Star Game, in his home arena no less, has led to a lot of reflection.
It’s given the 33-year-old the opportunity to think back on a career he didn’t think possible as a kid in Finland, one that seemed only slightly more likely after the Predators selected him with the 258th pick of the 2004 NHL Draft, in an eighth round that no longer exists.
“If you would have told me growing up in Finland I would be playing in an All-Star Game, or even playing in the NHL, I would have never believed you,” Rinne said.
Not all of Rinne’s memories are positive.
He’s thought about all the obstacles he’s overcome: three seasons in the American Hockey League that were interrupted by shoulder surgery; the hip infection that cost him most of the 2013-14 season and a chance to represent Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics; and a knee injury that slowed him midway through the 2014-15 season, but not enough to prevent him from being a Vezina Trophy finalist.
2016 HONDA NHL ALL-STAR GAME
“It’s human nature, sometimes you take it for granted and forget how lucky you are, how much you worked to be here,” Rinne said. “It’s good to look in the mirror and reflect on where you came from and what kind of obstacles you faced before.”It can also help when you face new ones.
Admittedly frustrated by his inconsistent play this season — his .906 save percentage is well below his .918 NHL career average — Rinne said he’s thought about his past health problems to provide perspective. He said he has also used the upcoming 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Nashville (5 p.m. ET on Sunday; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN) as a reminder he needs to have fun on the ice.
After losing five starts in a row (0-4-1) from Jan. 5-19, Rinne heads into the All-Star Game with three straight wins, allowing fewer than two goals in each for his first such three-game stretch since the first three games of the season.
“I always expect a lot of myself, and when I am not playing as well as my standards, those times you can be too hard on yourself,” Rinne said. “It’s the same thing during these times; it’s good to go back and try to remember that it’s such a fun game.”
Rinne has always played a fun game. Despite standing 6-foot-5, he has eschewed the more controlled, conservative positioning adopted by so many goalies. He remains as aggressive as any goaltender in the NHL, always tapping his post before exploding off the goal line as opposing rushes hit center ice, challenging way beyond the edges of his crease and matching his retreat to the speed of the attack.
Rinne still catches pucks like a shortstop, relying on hand-eye coordination developed playing Pesäpallo, a Finnish version of baseball, to snag pucks across his body and scoop them off the ice in front of his pads, eliminating rebounds other goalies kick out.
“It’s crazy just practicing with the guy, the shots you put along the ice at his pads and he scoops up with his glove,” Nashville defenseman Shea Weber told NHL.com last season. “I have never seen it anywhere else, and he works very hard at it in practice and converts it into games. He eliminates a lot of second chances all by himself.”
Rinne also moves more than most goalies, relying on reflexes and athleticism, rhythm and timing at a time when most his size are trying to move less to avoid opening up. It’s a style he admitted can be more reliant on feeling good physically, so it wasn’t always easy to play through the lower-body injuries of the past two seasons.
Though some might suggest reigning things in as he ages, Rinne is sticking with the style that has made him a three-time Vezina finalist and had him ahead of the Montreal Canadiens‘ Carey Price in the Vezina race at the midway point last season, before an MCL sprain slowed him.
When Rinne begins to doubt his approach, he talks with Predators backup goalie Carter Hutton.
“He’s seen me play a lot and he reminds me I am at my best when I play with a lot of energy, a lot of jam and fire,” Rinne said. “That’s how I feel too.”
So how then does Rinne explain the statistical dip this season?
A big part of it is adjusting his active style to fewer shots.
The Predators are allowing 26.7 shots per game, second in the NHL behind the Carolina Hurricanes (26.5). Rinne’s best two-season stretch in terms of save percentage came in 2010-11 (.930) and 2011-12 (.923), the only two seasons in his tenure that Nashville allowed more than 30 shots per game.
The biggest problem has been the games Nashville allows fewer shots than their average. In the 22 games Rinne faced 26 shots or fewer, he had an .890 save percentage. In the rest of his games, it’s .919, right around his NHL career average.
In the eight games the Predators allowed 30 or more shots, Rinne had a .932 save percentage. In the five games they allowed fewer than 20, it was .845.
“That’s been a huge adjustment mentally,” Rinne said. “You want to be a difference-maker, you want to do something to be able to help, and a lot of times this year after the game you feel like you didn’t do anything. It’s a terrible feeling.”
It can be even worse after giving up a goal.
“You want to get back in it right away, to have a positive effect on the game,” Rinne said, pausing for effect. “And instead you have to wait.”
The good news is Rinne believes he is getting used to it. He is breaking down each period into smaller segments between TV timeouts and staying involved by talking more with his defense and handling more pucks, even ones dumped in up on the glass.
“Having that mind frame of not letting the game dictate how you feel,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose what kind of game you get, but try to have the same mindset and let the game and the puck come to you. But it’s easier said than done.”
Rinne won’t have to worry about not being busy during his first NHL All-Star Game, but reflecting on his path to it has helped him get through the down time this season.