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Pekka Rinne’s Yearlong Journey from Anguish to Triumph

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Just over a year ago, Pekka Rinne was in San Jose, reflecting on whether his best chance at glory had come and gone. What a journey it has been since then.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Let's go back to May 12th, 2016 for a moment.

It was a dark day for the Nashville Predators. In what was at the time “the biggest game in franchise history,” the Predators stunk up the SAP Center, losing 5-0 to the Sharks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals.

While the Predators’ tired blueline was the most likely reason for the ugliness of the loss, the bulk of the blame fell where it normally does: the goaltender that allowed five goals, putting the game out of question early.

I’m sure you remember this moment.

And if you remember that, I’m sure you remember this heartbreaking quote after the game:

It was painful to read back then and it’s painful to read now. A guy as nice and genuine as Rinne deserves good things in life. He deserved a better run last year, considering how his regular season went, and he deserved some help on a bad night, considering how he carried the team through the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. Obviously it didn’t happen on May 12th.

Rinne’s journey out of last year’s anguish took only 375 days, but it felt like a lifetime.

October

After a lackluster single performance for Team Finland in the World Cup of Hockey—allowing four goals to Team North America during round robin play—Pekka Rinne began the season as the obvious starting goaltender. He makes $7 million a year and is the most senior member of the team. Still, he had his doubters. Many of them.

Full credit to Hayley for shining a ray of hope amid the darkness:

Rinne isn’t done yet. Despite overwhelming opinions stating otherwise, he is still a great goalie. He still holds the starting position and until Mazanec or Saros truly has the chance to prove themselves, Rinne will do what he’s always done. He’ll prepare to carry the workload, he’ll put his head down and he’ll go to work.

As hopeful as Hayley was, Rinne did not get off to a promising start. In six starts in October, he allowed 18 goals, stopped only 90.6% of shots, and limped to a 1-4-1 record. Rumblings were already beginning about either Marek Mazanec or Juuse Saros starting more often.

But other than the opening night 3-2 win over the Blackhawks, nothing was going right for the Preds in October. It wasn’t just Rinne. The defense had barely worked together as a unit, the offense hadn’t discovered the magic of JOFA, and there were questions about forward depth everywhere (some things never change I guess).

On October 29th, Rinne allowed three goals to the Sharks, giving the Preds their fourth loss of the season. Another loss to the Sharks, another disappointment. It had been 170 days since May 12th, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

November

Then suddenly, Rinne caught fire.

Starting with a 5-1 win over the Avalanche—in which Rinne stopped 28 shots—the Predators began rolling through a relatively easy November schedule. They climbed to an 11-8-3 record and had life again. Rinne was a big part of it.

He went 9-1-2 in twelve November starts, stopping 94.5% of shots in that time. To that point, it was one of the best stretches of hockey that Rinne had played in the regular season for several years. His best performance was probably a 27 save shutout of the Ducks.

Hey look, he stopped a Corey Perry shot!

That never gets old.

Rinne was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for November, the first time a Predator had ever received the award. It would be a sign of things to come, but not before more adversity.

202 days.

December

Accolades can only do so much. Despite a sparkling November, Rinne put up one of the worst months of his career in December.

In 10 starts, he allowed 33 goals, stopped 87.5% of shots, and even had four penalty minutes. One of those was a particularly egregious delay of game against the Wild, where he sent the puck clear into the stands. It wasn’t even close.

At this point, those early October rumblings were growing. Saros had started six games in relief of Rinne by the end of December and was nearly flawless, stopping 157 of 164 shots for a 95.7% save percentage. He looked extremely comfortable, especially in his season opening win against the Penguins (#SoupGame).

With the Predators falling in the standings again, the goalie position seemed to be in question going into the new year. Rinne just wasn’t consistent, while Saros looked very impressive. He even helped halt a three game losing streak with a 25 save shutout of the Blues on December 30th.

The writing was on the wall. From my piece on January 2nd:

...Juuse Saros doesn’t need to be a world class goalie or have a Vezina trophy to show he deserves to start more games. He simply needs to be an above average goalie that can give the Predators a chance to win games every time he plays. This would put him in clear position to take starts away from Rinne. He is definitely that, and probably more. It’s time to see more Saros.

How much more Saros do we need? The Predators have 46 regular season games left this season. I’d say the Saros needs to start, at minimum, 20 of those games, though I would prefer he start more like 24-26.

If the organization can find it in themselves to bench a $7 million goalie for half of the remaining games of the year, the team should turn a corner. If not, then the Preds are not likely to create any lasting playoff memories this year.

I stick by those words. Saros needed to start more games, and thankfully he did. But Rinne wasn’t done proving his worth to this team.

236 days.

January

As it turns out, a little bit of rest is good for a 34 year old goaltender.

Of the 14 games in the month of January for the Predators, Rinne started ten and Saros started four. They both played well enough for the Predators to go 8-4-2 in that stretch, once again pulling themselves into playoff contention.

Rinne’s save percentage in that stretch: 93.3%

Saros’ save percentage in that stretch: 92.3%

Pretty similar performances, and when you consider that Rinne played against teams like Chicago, Montreal, Edmonton, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh, and Saros played against Florida, Boston, Calgary, and Buffalo, Rinne was definitely playing slightly better.

Not that it matters. It seems that anytime you have a “position controversy” the debate inevitably becomes about who is “better.” That debate might have merit in football or basketball, but in hockey, with goalies, it’s about rest. You have two goalies because goalies need rest. If you have two good goalies, you don’t have one goalie who is tired. It’s attrition insurance.

So all of a sudden a relatively inconsistent aspect of the Predators had some consistency. They were building towards a playoff run and now they had two goalies playing well. This was a good sign.

And it had been 266 days since May 12th.

February

Two steps forward, one step back.

With the playoffs approaching, the team had finally found some offensive life. The JOFA line was in full force, wrecking its way through teams, mostly because it was Filbruary and that’s what happens.

Rinne was one of the primary beneficiaries of Filbruary. In ten starts, Rinne went 6-2-0 despite allowing 28 goals and only stopping 88.8% of shots. He was even pulled early from two games (FLA & CGY). For once, he was getting the goal support he needed, though I’m sure he wanted to play better.

His best performance came on February 2nd, where he shut-out the Oilers, stopping 31 shots. He looked calm and confident in net that night, especially on this save on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

He also turned in a nice 28 save performance in Buffalo, giving the Preds a three game win streak at the time. It’s almost like he had completely forgotten about May 12th, which at that point was almost 300 days in the rear-view mirror.

March

Though the month of March wasn’t First Star of the Month caliber, this might be where the magic really began for Rinne. He turned in a number of quality performances that helped propel the Preds back into the playoff picture, including a 22 save win against the Capitals on March 16th.

In ten starts, Rinne went 5-3-2, stopping 262 of 284 shots for a 92.3% save percentage. He had key wins over teams vying for playoff positioning like Washington, Calgary and... San Jose.

And of course, Rinne was finally getting some rest. Saros started four games in March, stopping about the same amount of shots. Again, it’s not about the quality, it’s about the rest. At this point, Rinne had only started 58 games of the regular season, which was a fairly low amount for him.

Rinne was healthy, rested, confident, and secure in his role. Chicken soup for the goalie soul.

Perhaps just as important, he was 323 days from May 12th.

April

Starting with a 31 save shutout of the Wild on home ice—a game the Preds desperately needed to win to stay afloat in the playoff race—Pekka Rinne had one of the best months of his career, including a stellar playoff run through the Blackhawks and Blues.

It’s hard to decide which April playoff performance by Rinne is my favorite, but I’ll highlight the first shutout of the series, Game 1.

One of the most rewarding things about watching Rinne in the past few weeks has been his ability to use his pads. He’s always been a very athletic goalie, but I feel like over the last few years he’s neglected his pads somewhat, trusting his glove-hand too much and over-committing on angles, just hoping for the best.

Here’s a great example:

There is no way in hell he could have caught that puck. But I feel like 2014-2016 Rinne would have tried to catch that puck, allowing it to go in easily.

But remember this Rinne is healthy, rested, calm, and confident. He finished off the Hawks with ease, then helped take a split in St. Louis in round two. Through seven April playoff games, Rinne had a 95.0% save percentage, allowing only 10 goals in 199 shots.

354 days.

May

On May 12th, 2017, one year from that terrible moment in his career, Rinne stopped 27 saves in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. The Preds won the game 3-2 on James Neal’s overtime winner. Early in the 2nd period he made these two saves to keep the game at 2-1. Note the pad work.

Leave nothing, want nothing, take everything.

Folks, Pekka Rinne didn’t come to play in these playoffs. He came to win.

After dispatching the Blues in six games, the Preds beat the Ducks in six games to win the Western Conference. They needed Rinne to be at his absolute best and he was. Even when losing Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher for the last two games of the series the Preds could count on Rinne to keep the game close.

Of course we knew the save percentage would come down. No goalie has managed a 95.0%+ save percentage this deep in the playoffs, but there was no reason to think it would bottom out. Except for one game in Anaheim, Rinne has remained consistent. In nine playoff games in the month of May so far, Rinne has stopped 257 of 275 shots for a 93.5% save percentage.

But more importantly than that, he triumphed over his previous failures. He flourished amid the uncertainty that surrounded his career and legacy. He stood bravely in net despite the constant fears that his best chance at actually winning something had come and gone.

The Stanley Cup has still yet to be rewarded, but that doesn’t mean that Rinne hasn’t already accomplished something remarkable in his career. He beat back the demons of a year ago, fought through the pains of regret and disappointment, and has put together the best playoff run of his life.

When I think of the Preds remarkable run to win the Western Conference, I think of Pekka Rinne first. The most humble man you’ll ever meet deserves all the credit for this playoff run.

378 days removed from a bad night in San Jose. Hugs all around.