It goes without saying that goaltender is a focal point for every playoff team, but for the low-scoring, defense-first Nashville Predators, the position's importance becomes elevated even further.
In their 11th season, the Predators will make their fifth postseason appearance this week –- also their fifth in the last six seasons -- and they will do so with their fourth different goalie.
This time, 27-year-old Pekka Rinne will make his debut as a No. 1 playoff netminder and he will enter the postseason among the League's hottest goalies. Over his final 14 games, the 6-foot-5 Rinne went 10-3-1, posting four shutouts.
"Obviously, after the [Olympic] break the whole team's been doing pretty well and myself, too," said the low-key Rinne, mostly crediting his teammates. "I think it always goes hand-in-hand. You win a game here or there when standing on your head and you play well, but other than that it always goes hand in hand with your team. You play well, your team plays well, it's a good combination."
Underscoring how important the goalie is for Nashville is the fact that the Predators are one of only three teams to qualify for the playoffs while allowing more goals (221) this season than they have scored (217). (Montreal and Ottawa are the others.)
Tomas Vokoun backstopped Nashville for two playoff seasons, with Chris Mason having to fill in -- which he did ably in a six-game series -- in 2005-06 when Vokoun went down with a blood disorder right before the playoffs began.
In 2007-08, Dan Ellis posted a .938 save-percentage and 2.52 goals-against in losing a six-game series. But none of them ever won a playoff series for the Predators and now is Rinne's opportunity to become the organization's first goalie to do so.
"It allows us -- the defense and the goaltending -- to be competitive every year," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said.
Although it will be Rinne's first taste of playoff action, the Predators hope that because of his age (27) he is mature enough to handle the situation. In fact, with Vokoun and Ellis preceding him, he had to wait longer than he wanted for his chance, playing three seasons in the minors, including his first when he took Milwaukee to the Calder Cup finals in the American Hockey League.
"Your timetable doesn't always go with what the players want," Predators General Manager David Poile said. "It's hard to be patient.... You're always looking to the future."
And so now in his first full season, Rinne finished tied for third in the NHL with seven shutouts. Perhaps his other most impressive statistic is that he won 32 games, 12th in the NHL, despite playing in only 58, which is at least four fewer than all of those who rank ahead of him.
"Obviously, right now you can say it worked really well," Rinne said of his long development in the minors. "It was a good time for me to play there and get used to the style of play in North America. I got to play a lot of games in those three years. That's the biggest thing, playing games. ... When I came up here, I felt maybe I was more ready for these games."