PITTSBURGH – Maybe the dumbest, most dimwitted — OK, to be kinder, questionable — story angle of the Stanley Cup Final came between Games 2 and 3 when some wondered whether Juuse Saros — after googling the correct spelling of his name, no doubt — would start Game 3 in goal for the Nashville Predators.
Pekka Rinne wasn’t at his best in Games 1 and 2, giving up four goals on 11 shots in the series opener and eight goals on 36 shots over the first two games. But the thought that coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t going to start the Predators’ lifer in the first home Stanley Cup Final game in franchise history was laughable.
The Predators will, of course, win or lose with Rinne. Laviolette said as much after a stellar Game 3 performance. That’s even more obvious now that Rinne, 9-1 at home in the playoffs with a .949 save percentage, and the NHL’s postseason leader with 14 wins and a 1.88 goals-against average, provided another terrific outing in Game 4 to even the series with Pittsburgh at two games apiece.
“He was a difference-maker,” Laviolette said.
Tuesday, 4,700 miles away at his home in Helsinki, Finland, Niklas Backstrom was overflowing with pride over his former backup being two wins from delivering Music City a Stanley Cup.
For three seasons, starting 15 years ago, Rinne was Backstrom’s rarely-used backup (25 regular-season games) for Karpat Oulu in the Finnish Elite League. In fact, Rinne’s claim to fame was his propensity for being late to practice, Backstrom quips.
“He’s a little better now,” said Backstrom, the Wild’s all-time winningest goalie. “There was always one guy waiting on Pekka. He’d always arrive at the last minute with a big smile like nothing happened.”
But even though Rinne, five years younger than Backstrom, was trapped as the backup, Backstrom said Rinne’s solid play was apparent to anybody who watched closely.
“Everyone on the team, or if you played against him, they knew he was back then a good goalie,” said Backstrom, 39. “He had a lot of talent but didn’t see a lot of playing time. He just loved to practice, worked so hard every day, and even if you saw him in the summer, he’d tell us about the new stuff he was trying, the new workouts. There was a lot of effort in practice, but it would have been easy for people to not give him a chance or not even draft him.”
In fact, the Predators selected Rinne with the 258th pick in the eighth round of the 2004 draft. NHL drafts these days don’t go past Round 7.
“My Finnish scout, Janne Kekalainen, had seen Pekka a couple times,” Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton said Tuesday. “It was very difficult to see him, but Janne just liked his whole demeanor, his athleticism, his competitiveness. At the draft, as we moved later and we were going through our list, Janne came up and said, ‘Remember, we’ve got to take Pekka Rinne here.’
“Being that late in that draft and looking for a home run, I thought it was worth the risk at that particular point. It’s turned out to be pretty significant to our whole organization of success.”
Since debuting in 2005-06, Rinne, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, is Nashville’s all-time leader with 269 wins, a .917 save percentage, a 2.38 goals-against average and 43 shutouts. He obviously owns every Predators playoff mark, too, and with 36 career wins is tied with Antti Niemi for most playoff wins in NHL history by a Finnish-born goaltender.
“It’s special. I mean, this is my home,” said Rinne, 34. “I’ve been fortunate enough to see all the great changes. The city has grown so much. The hockey has grown amazingly. Just being able to be part of it, it means a lot to me.”
Rinne said he got goose-bumps the way Predators fans greeted him during warmups of Game 3 despite such a tough first two games.
“You always have ups and downs,” Rinne said. “You try to stay even keel. It’s a roller coaster. It’s an emotional ride. So it’s no different, these Finals. Obviously the first two games, … personally wasn’t really happy with my game. But these [last] two games, they’ve been huge for us. Personally, too, I mean, it’s a game of confidence being a goalie.”
Talk to anybody about Rinne, and he’s one of the nicest, good-hearted players in the game.
“If I had a daughter, I’d want him to marry her,” Fenton said. “He’s that good of a person. As much as he’s a great goaltender, he’s a magnificent role model for so many people, for all of us, the way he just goes about his business every day. We’re reaping the benefits of him being great both on and off the ice.”
Every offseason Backstrom, Rinne and a dozen other friends and former teammates take a camping trip to a different part of Finland. Last weekend, Rinne missed the annual outing. Backstrom said Rinne’s excuse of playing for a Stanley Cup is a good one, although he vows that Rinne will pay for the nonappearance next summer.
“This whole ride has been fun to watch,” Backstrom said. “Pekka’s a great guy and was a great teammate. He supported me — all of us — even though it couldn’t have been easy for him not playing a lot. Pekka’s been so good, so great, for so many years. Finally, for him to be in the finals and a couple wins away, it’s a blast.
“I hope they go all the way.”