“We left him out to dry in the third period,” said the defenseman, who watched Rinne leave the ice after giving up three goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a three-minute and 18-second span in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night. “He’s been unbelievable for us in the playoffs. We wouldn’t be here without him.”
He’s right. Pekka Rinne is the reason the Predators are playing for the Stanley Cup. Full stop.
He had a .991 even-strength save percentage in the first round sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks, which put a hurricane-force wind in their sails after a middling regular season. His .930 even-strength save percentage against the St. Louis Blues had him out-dueling Jake Allen, who had been nothing short of brilliant. Even his .924 save percentage against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference final was impressive, despite it being Rinne’s most lackluster series.
But that was against the 9th-, 12th-, and 17th-ranked offenses during the regular season. The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the Stanley Cup Final as the NHL’s top offensive team, the only one that averaged over three goals (3.05) per game.
Through two games, Rinne’s been humbled by them and stunningly ordinary: He has a .788 save percentage at even-strength (7 goals on 33 shots) and a .777 save percentage overall in two losses.
Simply put: If he’s not the best player on the ice for the Nashville Predators in this series, then they’re not winning this series.
He was their best player for three rounds, and they won them all. Now, they’re trying to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions without Ryan Johansen – their top center who was lost to injury – whose absence has been felt when the Predators had those moments where one goal can change the game. If Rinne is the No. 1 reason the Predators are in the Final, then the Johansen line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson was Reason No. 1-A. And those two guys have combined for one assist in two games.
So Rinne has to be their best player. They need that more than in any other round. And he’s been far from it.
“It’s not the situation that we wanted it to be coming here,” said Rinne, who was pulled after 43 minutes, 28 seconds and four Penguins goals. “You have to put it behind you. For me, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I played a long time, and this is the first time having a chance to play for the Cup. You have to bury these two games.”
The Penguins did the burying, unfortunately: Eight goals past Pekka Rinne, who didn’t give up his eighth goal of the playoffs until his sixth game this postseason.
The ones he surrendered in Game 1 could be explained away in some fashion: Evgeni Malkin’s goal was stoppable, but on a 5-on-3 power play; Conor Sheary’s goal was on a wicked pass from Chris Kunitz; Nick Bonino’s goal went in off Mattias Ekholm; Jake Guentzel’s game-winner was a perfect shot, and the first Rinne had seen in 37 minutes.
The Predators were confident that Rinne would bounce back in Game 2, and why not? He had a .960 save percentage in the playoffs after losses. “He’s one of those guys that always has his mind right,” said Ekholm.
The goals he surrendered in Game 2 were less excusable. That Guentzel goal on the doorstep that somehow leaked through him. That sharp angle blast from Bryan Rust that he kicked right to Guentzel for a goal 10 seconds in the period. Yes, the odd-man rush goal to Scott Wilson was shoved behind him accidentally by Vern Fiddler’s skate. Sure, Malkin’s goal was on an odd-man rush, but was another one Rinne had a chance on.
And then that was it. The heart, soul and foundation on which the Predators have built their championship aspirations skated to the bench, having been pulled against a team he historically can’t beat. He’s 1-7-2 in his career against the Penguins, including this series, with a .865 save percentage.
Perhaps that’s why coach Peter Laviolette punted in naming Rinne his Game 3 starter during his postgame press conference. He dodged the question once, and then was asked a second time, point blank, if he was committed to Rinne to start on Saturday night in Nashville.
“Pekka has been excellent for us all year long, like I said. There’s things that we could have done. All three goals in the third period were odd-man rushes,” was his response, an answer that answered nothing.
Look, there’s another way to consider Rinne’s sudden plummet back to earth from postseason deity status: That players like Josi are actually infuriated with themselves for those defensive breakdowns, and for playing so poorly that a beloved veteran teammate had to do the skate of shame back to the bench in Game 2.
That they draw motivation from that disappointment in themselves.
“It’s not what Peks is doing. It’s our team,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis. “And if we’re going to make a go at it, it has to be our system that pulls us through.”
If Rinne can’t be the same Messianic backstop he was for three rounds for the Predators, then perhaps the Predators can have his back in Game 3.
“We just gotta be better for him,” said Josi.
MORE FROM YAHOO SPORTS