He wasn’t sure exactly what to expect heading into this season.
Pekka Rinne had been the Predators’ unquestioned starting goaltender for the vast majority of his previous 14 NHL campaigns, the Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s best netminder just three years ago.
But all the signs pointed to a full passing of the torch at long last.
Though Rinne and Juuse Saros had split starts during the 2019-20 regular season, it was Saros who’d guided the Predators down the stretch with spectacular play. The younger of the two Finns posted an 11-4 mark in his final 15 decisions last year, notching a pair of shutouts in his last three appearances. Rinne, meanwhile, wobbled to the worst numbers of his career, finishing with a 3.17 goals against average and .895 save percentage.
So it was no surprise that Saros started the Preds’ opening postseason contest against Arizona last season, no real shock that Rinne didn’t play a single moment in Nashville’s four-game loss to the Coyotes.
What, then, could a 38-year old Rinne realistically have envisioned heading into this season?
Based on the age difference between Rinne and the 25-year-old Saros — not to mention their career arcs — would Rinne get even a quarter of the Preds’ starts in net, perhaps a third? Surely no more.
“Obviously I knew how strong (Saros) was at the end of last season and he ended up playing the playoffs,” Rinne said. “I didn’t really have too many expectations, I guess. At the same time, you always want to play.
“But at the same time, it’s a healthy competition. I consider myself lucky to play with (Saros). He’s coming into his prime and obviously I’m in a different situation. But I love to compete.”
The pattern at the end of last season repeated itself at the start of 2021, as the Preds gave Saros the opportunity to establish himself as the number one, once and for all. Saros started four of Nashville’s first five games, five of the Preds’ first seven contests. He responded to the challenge with solid stats in those first five starts – a 3-2 record, .918 save percentage and 2.54 goals against average. Rinne’s struggles from 2020, meanwhile, followed him straight into 2021, as his first four appearances this season resulted in an .869 save percentage.
A funny thing happened, however, on the way to February.
The simple turn of the calendar has, for whatever reason, led to a Rinne resurgence, one the big netminder showed us again Tuesday when he produced a 24-save shutout against the Red Wings. It was the 59th career shutout for Rinne, his first since Nov. 29, 2019.
The game marked the fourth start in the Predators’ last five games for Rinne, who’s not so far away from 40 years old. But hey, who’s counting when Rinne is ringing up the kind of numbers he has so far this month?
A few examples:
- In seven February appearances (six starts), Rinne’s .938 save percentage is tied for third best in the NHL among goalies with at least three starts this month, and his 1.84 goals against average is tied for fifth best.
- He’s stopped 34-of-38 high-danger attempts, good for an .895 save percentage, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s third-best among goalies who’ve faced at least 20 high-danger shots this month.
- He’s stopped 19-of-20 shots during Preds’ penalty kills, a .950 save percentage that’s third-best among goalies facing at least 20 shots. That’s at least part of the reason the Preds’ much-maligned penalty-killing unit has not surrendered a power-play goal in five straight games.
Has Rinne been perfect? No. He gave up a couple of soft back-handers against Detroit earlier in the month, which led to him getting removed from net after two periods. Rinne has also been guilty of surrendering a smidge too much room on the short side from time to time.
But the highlights this month have more than made up for the lowlights, never more so than last Saturday, when the 6-5, 217-pound Rinne made a rotating, saucer-like save against Columbus – a move that prompted one media member to describe it as a “Pekka pirouette,” another to note the grace of the spinning Finn.
“Peks has been playing well,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “When he’s playing his best, he’s an athletic, competitive goalie. You see the types of saves he can make on plays that – if you give up some really good chances for the other team – he has the ability to make big-time saves.
“Size is a factor because he’s big and athletic and he reads pucks well. There are pucks that hit him, even through traffic and things like that when he’s playing well.”
It wouldn’t be fair to detail the Rinne revitalization, however, without also noting the Saros slump.
Much as the Predators wanted Saros to sink his teeth into the number one netminder’s job, it just hasn’t happened, not since the end of January anyway. In his five February appearances (four starts), Saros is 0-3, with a cringe-worthy .833 save percentage and 4.58 goals-against average.
There remain consistency questions surrounding the 5-11, 180-pound Saros, who’s as quick as a cat but just doesn’t fill the net like his bigger NHL brethren.
Much as the Preds might like to play Saros enough to let him regain his confidence, how can they be blamed – at least at this point in the season, when they’re theoretically still in the playoff hunt – to keep rolling out Rinne when he’s playing this well?
That scenario doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Preds’ future in net, as Saros’ inability to take the torch – on a full-time basis – could leave Nashville in a lurch down the line. The organization has 2020 first-round pick Yaroslav Askarov in the system. But the talented Russian netminder is just 18 years old, so – despite the fact he’s off to a great start in the KHL – it remains to be seen when he’s NHL ready.
In the meantime, though, let’s enjoy the Rinne renaissance as long as it lasts.
It’s not every day, after all, that one sees a 38-year old blanket the league like Rinne has this month. The third-oldest goalie in the league – trailing only Anaheim’s Ryan Miller (40) and Washington’s Craig Anderson (39) – will ride a shutout streak of 94:32, more than four-and-a-half periods, into his next start.
Rinne may not be the goaltender of the Preds’ future, but he sure looks likes their goaltender of the foreseeable future.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” Rinne said. “Who knows if this is my last year? I’m just trying to really take it all in and give everything I have. It’s been fun lately, getting to play a little more.”