NASHVILLE — Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne’s face right now is nearly impossible.
The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.
“As a player, I feel like I’ve had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity,” Rinne said. “So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have.”
Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he’s probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenceman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.
Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single post-season behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne’s 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one post-season.
“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenceman P.K. Subban said.
The 19-year-old franchise has reached its first Stanley Cup Final behind Rinne’s standout performances.
After Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games Monday night , Rinne now is even stingier on home ice with a 7-1 record, 1.54 GAA and .947 save percentage. He made 38 saves on a night where Nashville took only 18 shots.
“Anytime you need to close a series out, you know that as a goalie you got to be good and as a team you got to be good,” Rinne said.
The native of Kampele, Finland, has been better than good. He also has the skill to skate out to play the puck. With coach Peter Laviolette’s team clogging the neutral zone to slow opponents, Rinne is an extra (tall) layer of frustration waiting at the end of the ice for opponents who dump the puck in — even those high on the glass.
Anaheim defenceman Kevin Bieksa said Rinne will throw his body against the glass to knock the puck down so he can pass it out to a teammate essentially turning the goalie into another defender.
“You don’t see many goalies that aggressive,” Bieksa said. “And he’s gone out, he’s played a lot of pucks. And he’s good at it. One of their strengths, for sure.”
Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle noted Rinne had eight plays on the puck alone in the first period of Game 5, a 3-1 Nashville win that put the Predators up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.
“You can’t give him that type of opportunity,” Carlyle said.
Laviolette calls goaltender the most important position on the ice and he said Rinne’s confidence is a huge benefit for the team.
“And it gives you opportunities,” he said.
Rinne now has 34 playoff victories and is no longer at the top of a list no goalie likes. Washington’s Braden Holtby (29) is now the active goalie with the most post-season wins who hasn’t reached the final.
The only surprise was that it took Rinne this long. He’s a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He led the league with 43 wins in 2011-12 and was MVP of the 2014 world championships.
Rinne bounced back from a hip injury that required arthroscopic surgery and later an E. coli infection that limited him to 24 games in the 2013-14 season. With him out of the lineup, Nashville just missed the post-season, leading general manager David Poile to replace coach Barry Trotz with Laviolette.
“I think David and the owners have done a really good job providing Peter more tools and maybe higher quality players and more talent,” Rinne said.
Defenceman Mattias Ekholm says Rinne’s competitive streak comes out on the ice.
“He will put his foot down, and say, ‘Hey, this is my crease. This is where I am,’” Ekholm said. “So I wouldn’t say he’s as polite on the ice vs. our opponents. He’s always a competitor, and he always wants to win.”
The next chance for a win comes Monday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.