Goaltender Pekka Rinne wound up in a most unfamiliar spot in two of the most important games of his life.
On the bench having been chased not once, but twice.
In the Stanley Cup Final.
Now Rinne is back in the postseason once again, and the 6-foot-5 Finn is a big reason why the Nashville Predators won the Presidents' Trophy with the most points during the regular season. As Rinne prepares for Game 1 on Thursday night against Colorado, he insists last year's Final provides not so much motivation as experience to use to his advantage along with so many good memories from that thrilling playoff run.
"It's a different year, obviously different situation, little bit of a different team," Rinne said. "But I'm sure you'll look back at last year's run, I think there's a lot of things we can take, a lot of positives all the way through the finals and even after the finals. I think it was an unbelievable experience. I think you try to use that to your advantage."
Rinne carried last-seeded Nashville all the way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup Final by going 12-4 with a .945 save percentage, ranking among the best postseasons by a goalie.
Then came the Final.
In Game 2 against Pittsburgh , Rinne was pulled by coach Peter Laviolette after Nashville gave up three goals in the first 3:18 of the third period of a 4-1 loss. Game 4 was even worse as Rinne gave up three goals on nine shots , lasting only the first period before being replaced by Juuse Saros again. The Predators lost in six games.
Laviolette believes Rinne took the bulk of the blame for those losses when the Predators could have played better in front of their goalie. He also noticed what Rinne did to improve himself.
"Let's be honest," Laviolette said. "He's been the backbone of this franchise. He was really good down the stretch in order to get us in the playoffs last year, and when the playoffs came, he was on point. And that was a big part of it. It was more for me just a continuation. I think there's always changes. I think Pekka does a terrific job of trying to watch, trying to learn, trying to understand the game better, trying to work at his craft."
Washington coach Barry Trotz has seen how driven Rinne is. He wants to stop every puck — even in practice.
"He's extremely competitive and extremely proud, that he plays hard on every puck," Trotz said of his former goalie. "It doesn't matter how tired he is. ... He plays every puck to exhaustion. And to me that's allowed him to stay sharp mentally, and I think it's allowed him to stay sharp physically because he's 35 and he still is as quick and explosive as he's ever been."
Rinne started working early to prepare for this season. He has worked on his stance in and around the net with Predators goaltender coach Ben Vanderklok to tighten his stance. Planting his skates inside the post rather than outside allows Rinne to be faster tracking a puck, able to push off a post to slide quickly to the other post.
Not a big change for a goalie who turned 35 last November.
"It's hard to do any drastic changes at this point of your career," Rinne said.
Rinne has rebounded from losing the Final with a season that finally might win him the Vezina Trophy he missed three other times.
The goalie, who won his 300th career game during the season, posted a career-high eight shutouts with the second-best save percentage of his career at .927. He finished third in the NHL with 42 wins and fifth in goals-against average (2.31). Down the stretch, Rinne was at his best going 23-5-1 with five of those shutouts.
"He was the best goalie of the year," Colorado forward Mikko Rantanen said.
Rinne also should be rested for the postseason having played only 59 games, two fewer than last season and his fewest in an injury-free season since 2009-10 when playing 58 games. Laviolette stuck to a plan trying to ensure Rinne would be as fresh as possible for the playoffs while developing Saros.
As winners of the Presidents' Trophy, the Predators will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Smashville is where Rinne went 25-6-2 this season and an impressive 9-2 last postseason, which provides a certain sense of comfort.
"When you think about it, if you take care of all the home games, you win the Stanley Cup so I mean that's huge," Rinne said.
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