On October 23, the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks battled for divisional supremacy. That these rivals were the only two teams left without a regulation loss in the NHL was just half surprising. While many pundits had picked the Blackhawks to win this season's Stanley Cup, few had picked the Predators to even make the playoffs because their success depended so much on whether one player, goalie Pekka Rinne, was on his game.
In the third period, with Nashville leading 3--1, the Blackhawks' fearsome offense came alive. Defenseman Brent Seabrook, streaking down the sideboards, threw a perfect pass to winger Kris Versteeg, who then had a seemingly wide-open net at which to shoot.
A mere six feet separate the goalposts on a standard NHL net, a distance Rinne's six-foot, five-inch frame covers almost entirely with his legs splayed in the butterfly technique. But just a year ago, those last few inches between Rinne's skate and the post may as well have been miles. He underwent arthroscopic hip surgery before the 2013--14 season to address a nagging injury. He planned to avoid missing any time, but just nine games into the season, lingering discomfort led to a second surgery. Later the team revealed Rinne had a bacterial infection in his hip and would be out indefinitely. He missed over four months.
Against Versteeg and the Blackhawks this past October, the lanky netminder kicked his right leg out, denying the Blackhawks' winger at point-blank distance. The Predators held on to win 3--2, handing Chicago its first regulation loss and making a statement about Nashville's place in the Western Conference. Through January 15, the Predators sat atop the Central Division with a 29-9-4 record. That Rinne can again make saves like the one on Versteeg is a big reason why.
THE LONG ROAD
Finland native Pekka Rinne is familiar with being overlooked. He became eligible for the draft in 2001 but remained unpicked for three years, an obscure farmhand for Karpat Oulu, a top Finnish league team. Finally, during the 2003--04 season, when Rinne was a full-time member of a championship Karpat club, Nashville scouts expressed interest. There was just one problem: They hardly ever got to watch Rinne play. As the backup to another future star NHL goaltender, Niklas Backstrom, Rinne spent most of the season on the bench.
"I was really honored and intimidated by [Nashville's interest]," Rinne says. "But I didn't think much of it. I didn't play a lot. Then during the summer, I get a phone call from my Finnish agent: 'You got drafted by Nashville.' I was really surprised."
The Predators selected Rinne 258th overall in 2004, in the eighth round.
After three seasons on Nashville's AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, 26-year-old Rinne reached the big leagues. He began the 2008--09 season as incumbent goalie Dan Ellis's backup and ended it with the starting job.
Over the next three years, Rinne was a revelation, leading the Predators to three straight playoff appearances, including their first two series wins, and twice finishing as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the league's best goaltender. His rangy athleticism and edge-of-the-crease aggressiveness allowed him to make saves other netminders simply couldn't.
To his penchant for making great saves, Rinne has added a habit of never missing the easy ones. Through 42 games, he was first in the league in wins (29) and goals against average (1.96) and was tied for second in save percentage (.931).
"I can only think of one goal all year where I'd probably say, 'He definitely should have had that,' " says Ben Vanderklok, Nashville's goaltenders coach. "He's done a good job of making all the saves he should make — some biggies — and not getting in his own way."
HIS BEST SHOT
Of course, a resurgent Rinne isn't the only reason for the Predators' success. Nashville made its first head coaching change in franchise history this off-season, bringing in Peter Laviolette.
Rinne credits his success to the continuity of his coaching relationships. He still works in the offseason in Finland with his Karpat mentor, Ari Hilli. The Predators had the same goalie coach, Mitch Korn, for Rinne's first nine years in the organization. Korn left for Washington before the season, but Rinne calls the staff changes a "breath of fresh air."
Laviolette's up-tempo system has the Predators' skaters doing something new in front of their goalie: scoring. Their even-strength offense ranks third this season, after finishing 15th and 28th the two seasons before.
And while Rinne's concern remains stopping the puck ("My job hasn't really changed," he says), a more well-rounded team means the goalie no one expected to be drafted and no one thought would be a star can do something else no one saw coming: win a Stanley Cup.
Photos: John Russell/NHLI/Getty Images