Pekka Rinne finding consistency at the right time for Predators

PITTSBURGH — As the longest-tenured member of the Nashville Predators roster, the team’s run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final has to be extra special for starting goaltender Pekka Rinne.

He has been one of the core players in the organization for more than a decade and been through all of the recent postseason disappointments as the team was unable to climb the hurdle that was the second-round of the playoffs until this season.

“Before each season, you know, when you’re a professional hockey player, you dream about this situation,” said Rinne on Sunday afternoon during the Stanley Cup Final media day.

“Every season my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, in all honesty. You come to training camp, you prepare yourself all summer, and now finally we are in this situation. I always felt that one day we would be in this situation.”

One of the biggest reasons the Predators are in this situation has been because of Rinne and his play in net.

Nashville’s defense has obviously gotten a significant portion of the headlines this postseason, and for very good reason. It is the NHL’s best group, has played exceptionally well, and as Rinne himself said on Sunday is “the backbone of the team.”

But goaltending is still the one position that can make-or-break a postseason run and flip everything upside down. A hot goalie can lift an underdog and sink a favorite in any given series. As the last line of defense, Rinne has been a rock for the Predators and been able to take his play to an entirely different level this postseason.

The biggest change: Just finding some consistency to his game.

Even though Rinne’s overall numbers for the season were strong (his .918 save percentage was above the league average) they fluctuated wildly on a month-by-month basis.

It looked a little something like this: .906, .949, .875, .933, .888, .923, .960 (three games).

After finishing the last two months on a high note, Rinne has continued that strong play into the postseason and posted a save percentage of .930 or better in 12 of his first 16 playoff games. Combine that with a defense that has a top-four like Nashville’s and it has made them the toughest team to score against this postseason.

Entering the Final the Predators are allowing just 1.81 goals per game. The only team that allowed fewer goals during in one playoff run during the salary cap era was the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (1.50).

“It’s hard to explain,” said Rinne on Sunday when asked about what changed in his play.

“I think we started off really well against Chicago, then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well. Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way. I feel the biggest thing is as a team, for a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job. I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

The Predators were the 16th out of 16 teams to clinch a playoff spot this year and had to begin their Stanley Cup Final run with a first-round matchup against their long-time arch nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only a team that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and was viewed as the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but also a team that had eliminated Rinne and the Predators twice in the past seven years.

Nashville was not only able to conquer that hurdle, it ended the series in a clean four-game sweep. It set the stage for the Predators to break through and advance beyond the second-round for the first time in franchise history.

“I feel like any year the hardest thing is to get past the first two rounds,” said Rinne.

“You still have so many teams at that point. Once you get past those rounds, you really start feeling confident and things are going your way. It is a very powerful feeling when 23 guys come together. It was something against Chicago, that was my third time playing against that team and first time winning against them, it was almost like a hurdle we had to get over and we did that. It was a big win for the organization as well.”

Now the organization has chance to do something even bigger over the next two weeks.

In recent years as Rinne has gotten older his play has started to decline a bit from where it was earlier in his career, almost to the point where he was viewed as a question mark or perhaps even the weak link on the roster. That has not been the case this postseason, and it is one of the biggest reasons the team has this opportunity in front of it.

These 2017 NHL Draft picks lacked hype … but not swagger

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The interview process for draft prospects must be a real beating. Then again, it’s also an opportunity for hopefuls to push back.

In the case of two smaller prospects, it meant providing some swagger in their answers, possibly impressing their new teams. If nothing else, Kailer Yamamoto and Michael DiPietro generated some refreshingly confident quotes.

One would assume that the Edmonton Oilers picked Yamamoto with the 22nd choice for more than just a great answer alone … but still.

Nice, right?

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek related a similar story about DiPietro, who the Vancouver Canucks nabbed with the 64th pick.

Funny story: When one team at the NHL told him “We don’t think you can play in the NHL with our team, you’re too small” at the combine, he fired back with “well, I guess you have a problem with winning, then.” How do you not like that?

If nothing else, those two aren’t shy.

As a bonus story, check out the bumpy path Will Reilly – aka the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2017 NHL Draft – took to being chosen last overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, via Puck Daddy’s Sean Leahy. From the sound of things, there are worse feelings than going 217th.

The 2017 NHL Draft may have been “pumped down” from a hype perspective, yet it sounds like many of these prospects at least bring some moxie to the table.

Kings, Golden Knights labeled 2017 NHL Draft winners; Bruins, not so much

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It’s nearly certain that we won’t be able to determine the “winners and losers” of the 2017 NHL Draft until, say, 2022. If not later.

Still, what fun is that?

Quite a few outlets pegged some winners and losers, though sometimes the choices were more about themes like nations or player types than specific teams.

For example: Puck Daddy gives a thumbs down to the “green room” experiment.

Let’s take a look at some of the consensus picks.

Winners

Vegas Golden Knights

GM George McPhee was dealt a bad hand when it comes to the lottery draft, so he instead made his own luck. And then he selected three players who could improve this team going forward.

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek especially liked the last two of their three first-rounders (Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom), viewing Cody Glass as more of a no-brainer. Plenty of others were on board.

Los Angeles Kings

Gabe Vilardi fell to Los Angeles, whether it was because of shaky skating or some other reason. That potential steal (and some other shrewd moves) impressed the Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy, who assembled draft profiles for PHT.

Again, Vilardi’s loss was considered the Kings’ gain, as slower skaters were considered losers by the likes of Post Media’s Michael Traikos.

Philadelphia Flyers

Boy, Ron Hextall is good at this thing, isn’t he? Philly drew high marks even beyond the layup of landing Nolan Patrick. The main area of disagreement revolved around the Brayden Schenn trade, though plenty came out on Hextall’s side there, too.

Arizona Coyotes

Boy, that negative press didn’t last long, did it? Between landing Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, and Antti Raanta in trades and savvy picks, they were a popular choice.

Themes

Smaller players, Sweden, and Finland drew semi-serious mentions as “winners.”

Losers

Boston Bruins

The perception is that they played it too safe.

Colorado Avalanche, for now?

OK, this was more about draft weekend than picks, but people are criticizing Joe Sakic for standing pat. That could change, but the negative sentiment is there.

Detroit Red Wings

Another common choice. Some believe that their draft was the worst of them all, which isn’t great considering the declining opinion of GM Ken Holland overall.

New York Rangers

Lias Andersson was viewed as a reach by plenty, and his connection to the trade to Arizona might intensify the scrutiny.

Themes

Not a great draft for Russian-born players and/or guys who don’t skate quite swiftly.

***

So, those are some of the near-consensus choices for winners and losers, via the brave souls who made rapid reactions to the 2017 NHL Draft.

Ducks ink D Holzer to two-year deal reportedly worth $1.8M

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As the dust settled on the expansion draft, the Anaheim Ducks’ defense is coming into focus.

Sunday continued that pattern; the Ducks signed Korbinian Holzer to a two-year contract worth $1.8 million, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie.

You can break down the Ducks defense as more expensive players (Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler, and Kevin Bieksa) and cheaper ones (Holzer, Brandon Montour, and Josh Manson).

Only Vatanen, Lindholm and Holzer see contracts that go beyond 2017-18 – at least without an extension yet for the likes of Fowler and Manson – so Holzer provides a little bit of certainty.

Is the $900K a minor overpay, though? Holzer played in 32 games for the Ducks this season after appearing in 29 in 2015-16. His impact has been pretty minimal, generating seven points while averaging 13:31 in ice time per contest (down from 14:45 the previous season).

Granted he may get more opportunities to show what he’s capable of if the Ducks lose another piece. Then again, at 29, the Ducks likely know what they have.

2017 Hockey Hall of Fame class to be named Monday; Selanne + who?

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The 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame class is expected to be announced on Monday, and every indication is that Teemu Selanne will be on the list. Beyond that, well, there are a lot of question marks.

NHL.com notes that there’s at least a possibility that Selanne will be the only NHL name to be part of this class, which would mark a first since 2010 (when Dino Ciccarelli was the lone addition).

It’s a nice way to continue what’s been a buffet for hockey fans: the 2017 Stanley Cup Final’s conclusion, the expansion draft and then the 2017 NHL Draft. The HHOF announcements are a nice appetizer before free agency gets, well, frenzied?

“The Finnish Flash” was also an obvious top choice in last year’s poll to see who should be in the class.

Now, that doesn’t mean he is the only interesting name.

For one thing, Daniel Alfredsson will be eligible for the first time, much like Selanne. “Alf” falls in the “Maybe” category with some interesting, debatable other options: Mark Recchi, Dave Andreychuk, Alex Mogilny, Jeremy Roenick, Paul Kariya, Chris Osgood, and more.

The 2016 Hockey Hall of Fame class included Eric Lindros, Rogie Vachon, Sergei Makarov, and Pat Quinn.