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Pekka Rinne pulled from Game 2, but should remain Predators' No. 1 goalie

Coach Peter Laviolette won't commit to him for Game 3 of Stanley Cup Final against Penguins

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- There should be no controversy.

Coach Peter Laviolette did not commit to sticking with goaltender Pekka Rinne after the Nashville Predators' 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday.

But Rinne should start Game 3 at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports) with the Predators trailing 2-0 in the best-of-7 series. He has earned it. He still gives them the best chance to win.


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Not that the Predators have a chance to defeat the defending champions if Rinne continues to play the way he has the first two games. He has gone from the biggest reason they advanced to the Final for the first time in their history -- and the leading candidate to be the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- to the biggest reason they have lost back-to-back games for the first time this postseason.

Rinne took a drink of water, tossed his gear in his bag and faced reporters after allowing four goals on 25 shots and getting pulled 3:28 into the third period Wednesday. First question: How would he rate his performance?

"Obviously it's not the situation ..." Rinne started to say.

He sighed.

"… we wanted coming in here, but ..."

He paused.

"I can't give you a rating how I'm playing."

The numbers speak for themselves.

After going 12-4 with a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage through the first three rounds, leading the NHL in the major statistical categories among goaltenders who had played more than five games, Rinne is 0-2 with a 4.71 GAA and .778 save percentage against the Penguins. He has allowed eight goals on 36 shots.

But it goes beyond numbers. Rinne has been the victim of a couple of bad bounces but allowed at least four bad goals, and at bad times.

In Game 1, with no score in the first period and Nashville killing a 5-on-3, Rinne saw an Evgeni Malkin shot cleanly and let it in off the bottom of his glove. After the Predators came back from down 3-0 to tie the game, he allowed Jake Guentzel to score on Pittsburgh's first shot in 37:00, dropping into a butterfly when the puck sailed past his left shoulder. The Penguins went on to win 5-3.

In Game 2, with Nashville leading 1-0 in the first period, Rinne failed to seal his body against the left post. Guentzel backhanded a rebound between Rinne's glove and torso. The score stayed 1-1 through two periods with the Predators outshooting the Penguins 32-19. But off the opening faceoff of the third, Rinne came out too far to his left to stop a Bryan Rust shot on the rush and allowed a fat rebound. Guentzel put it into the net 10 seconds into the period before Rinne could recover. The Predators unraveled, and the Penguins cashed in with two more quick goals.

Laviolette was asked if he was committed to Rinne for Game 3. He did not say yes.

"Pekka has been excellent for us all year long," Laviolette said. "There's things that we could have done. All three goals in the third period were odd-man rushes."

Video: NSH@PIT, Gm2: Laviolette on being down, 2-0, in SCF

That will fuel talk of a change.

So will this: Rinne's save percentage has declined from round-to-round. It was .976 in a sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round, .932 in a six-game win against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, .928 in a six-game victory against the Anaheim Ducks in the conference final, and is .778 against the Penguins in the Final.

It's fair to wonder if Rinne, who had never played in the conference final before, is worn down or feeling the pressure.

Rinne does not have a good history against Pittsburgh, either. In eight regular-season games, he is 1-5-2 with a 3.57 goals-against average and .880 save percentage. Now this.

Meanwhile, backup Juuse Saros has won his only game against the Penguins, stopping 34 of 35 shots in a 5-1 win at Bridgestone Arena on Oct. 22 when the Predators, including Rinne, were ravaged by food poisoning.

But is Laviolette really going to replace Rinne, a 34-year-old veteran of 508 regular season and 66 playoff games who has worked his whole career to play in the Final in Nashville, with Saros, a 22-year-old rookie who has played 22 regular-season games and made his playoff debut Wednesday? Would Saros really give the Predators a better chance to win?

"Our mindset hasn't changed with [Rinne]," defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "He's our MVP. He's our best player. Pekka, he stands on his head every night. It's not what [Rinne] is doing wrong. It's the guys in front of him."

Well, it's both. The Predators have to stop taking penalties and breaking down at the first sign of trouble, and Rinne has to make saves. The Penguins, a quick-strike team, are too talented. The margin for error is too thin.

"It's always [a challenge to stay confident] when you lose a couple games and you get pulled," Rinne said. "You're not happy how things went, but you've got to put those things behind and focus on the things you can control. That's the Game 3 right now that I'm focusing [on], and having an opportunity to go home and play in our building."

Rinne should have that opportunity.

He needs to seize it.

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