NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) 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 defenseman. 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 postseason 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 postseason.
“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenseman 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 defenseman 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 postseason 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 postseason, 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.
Defenseman 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.
Well, here we are.
Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators. The loser will go home, while the winner will take on the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
It doesn’t get much better than this.
Here’s what you need to know:
Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (series tied 3-3)
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Network: NBCSN (Stream live here)
–We’re getting closer to the opening of the buyout window, which means that certain teams are getting ready to pay players to stay away from their organization. Sportsnet looks at the top 12 buyout candidates of the summer. A pair of Rangers defensemen are at the top of the list. (Sportsnet)
–The Sens and Pens will do battle in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final tonight, so Sean McIndoe listed the top 5 memorable Game 7s in Conference Final history. One of the classic moments in hockey history occurred between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in 1979. (The Hockey News)
–The Washington Capitals underachieved again this spring, and that’s led to some people believing they’ll trade Alex Ovechkin. CSN Mid-Atlantic breaks down the five reasons the Caps won’t be dealing Ovechkin. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)
–Almost 14 years ago, the Calgary Flames landed Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks for a second-round pick. The deal proved to be incredible for the Flames, as they were one win away from a Stanley Cup title. The team’s website looks back at the big deal. (NHL.com/Flames)
–The Edmonton Oilers have some interesting decisions to make in the coming years. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will need to get paid in the near future, which means there might not be room for Jordan Eberle and his $6 million salary. Oilers insider Drew Remenda thinks it’s time to move on from the winger. “People can say what they want about me, but I’ll be honest with you in what I think about hockey, and what I think is happening is on the ice. To me I don’t think Jordan Eberle gave you enough or showed you enough to deserve to get another chance.” (Edmonton Journal)
–Congratulations to Maple Leafs forward Brian Boyle and his wife on the birth of their little girl:
PITTSBURGH (AP) Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.
The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that’s not exactly the case.
“I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times,” Anderson said.
Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.
So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.
“I think, if you believe you’re beaten, you’re done already,” Anderson said. “If you believe that you can win, there’s always a chance.”
All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league’s marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.
No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren’t supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring’s Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.
Yet they’ve survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan’s impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.
Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year’s East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents’ Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month.
“It’s not something that’s new to them,” Sullivan said. “These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions, and they have those experiences to draw on. You know, I think they know what to expect, and now it’s a matter of going out and earning it and controlling what they can and doing your very best to get the result that we’re looking.”
The Senators are 0-5 in Game 7s, the last setback coming in the first round to the New York Rangers in 2012. That was five years ago, a lifetime in the NHL. Ottawa rebuilt itself on the fly this season in coach Guy Boucher’s first year. Boucher favors discipline over daring, and while the stat sheet looked awfully one-sided in Game 6, the scoreboard did not.
The Senators understand they’re the underdog and that the idea of a Cup final between first-timer Nashville and a Canadian club from one of the smallest markets in the league won’t exactly draw eyeballs to the screen. They don’t care. They’ll try to play the way they always play on Thursday night. To be successful, they don’t really have a choice.
“We tried to win another way, and we got our butts kicked,” Boucher said.
While both Boucher and Sullivan are doing their best to try and keep their teams focused on the process and not the outcome, in some ways it’s a fool’s errand. It’s the only game all year that will end with the Prince of Wales Trophy presented – but not handed – to the winners. They know. The players do, too.
“I think it’s fun to kind of get lost in those moments and to just do what you can do,” Penguins goaltender Matt Murray said.
Just don’t confuse adrenaline with nerves.
“These are the games, when you’re a kid growing up, that you’re playing in the backyard, the Game 7s and that,” said 40-year-old Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen, who could play in his final NHL game on Thursday. “So for us as players, this is what it’s all about.”
Game 7 offers the Penguins and their stars the opportunity to cement their legacy while the Senators can complete an improbable run to their sport’s biggest stage.
“We’re against a really good hockey team, the Stanley Cup champion, and we have a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals,” Senators forward Derick Brassard said. “We can’t ask for anything better than this, but we just have to have fun with that.”
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