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Pekka Rinne has Predators on cusp of history entering Game 5

Win against Blues would put Nashville in its first Western Conference Final

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators are on a special journey, one that began as an expansion team 19 years ago in a city that knew little of hockey to being one win away from the first Western Conference Final in their history in a city that has fully embraced them.

Pekka Rinne has been riding shotgun for nearly half of that journey, now in his ninth season as the Predators No. 1 goaltender, and he has seen just how long and arduous it has been.

For him to be in Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday, in front of the 45th sellout crowd of the season, making 32 saves in a 2-1 win against the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round, Rinne can see a place that neither he nor the fans he has played in front of for years have ever seen before.

 

[RELATED: Complete Blues vs. Predators series coverage]

 

The Predators lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 and can advance to the Conference Final with a win in Game 5 at Scottrade Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Rinne, 34, is a big reason why the Predators have reached this point, going 7-1 with a 1.33 goals-against average and .953 save percentage. That is the best save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a goaltender that has faced at least 200 shots since the statistic began being tracked in 1983-84, according to Hockey-Reference.com, but Rinne is trying his best not to put too much stock into that.

"It's still a small stretch of games to me," Rinne said Wednesday. "But it's one of those things, you try not to look at those numbers."

When Rinne began playing in Nashville, the television broadcasts of Predators games included segments explaining the rules of hockey such as offside or icing. In the third period of Game 4 on Tuesday, Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson got a standing ovation after he pinned the puck along the boards in the offensive zone, killing precious seconds off a Nashville penalty while protecting a one-goal lead.

These fans don't need the rules explained to them anymore.

Video: STL@NSH, Gm4: Rinne extends for pair of pad stops

"It's grown so much," Rinne said. "Even in general, the city itself, just people moving here the size of the city has grown so much, but also hockey-wise; youth hockey, our fan base. This traditionally being more of a football area, I feel like now it's kind of 50-50. It's a huge fan base for hockey, and I truly believe they're some of the best fans in the League. It's been great to be part of it, it's been great to follow it and see that change.

"And that's the thing, you want to do this for the fans."

But as much as Rinne enjoys doing this for the city, or for the fans, his own journey to this point appeared very unlikely a year earlier.

He entered last season after finishing second in Vezina Trophy voting in 2014-15. But by his own admission, Rinne struggled and, after picking up his play late in the regular season and playoffs, the Predators were eliminated in a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of the second round.

Video: STL@NSH, Gm4: Rinne turns aside Tarasenko's drive

Rinne's .908 save percentage last season was the lowest in an NHL season in which he played at least 25 games.

"The year before that I had a really strong year, then obviously you have high expectations for yourself, so it was a disappointing year for myself," Rinne said. "I remember that feeling, it was a huge disappointment [losing] Game 7 in the second round. It didn't feel like that was good enough. Going back to Finland after the season, overall I was disappointed about the whole season."

Rinne bounced back this season by going 31-19-9 with a 2.42 GAA and .918 save percentage, and is playing his best hockey at the right time. But even if he struggled with his confidence a year ago, his teammates and the organization never did, largely because of how long he has been so good for the Predators.

"Since Day 1 that I've been here, [Rinne] has been the MVP of this team every year," defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "He plays so hard, his work ethic is second to none. I think it becomes contagious. When you're out there and you see him in practice just on a standard drill bouncing from side-to-side just to make a save, it becomes contagious and you want to do the same thing. You see a guy go to battle like that for you and you want to return the favor and work just as hard for him."

Video: STL@NSH, Gm4: Rinne, Ellis team up to keep puck out

Rinne sees the opportunity in front of him, and also knows he is running out of chances to complete the Predators journey in the best way possible, with their first Stanley Cup.

"You don't want to look too far ahead, but after this one I have two more years on my contract," he said. "I obviously realize where I'm at in my career now. When you get into the League you don't think about things like that. You get to the playoffs and you think it's going to happen every year. It doesn't happen overnight to have a team like this."

It doesn't happen overnight to have a hockey city like Nashville either, one eager to reap the rewards of their investment in the Predators. No one knows that more than Rinne, and no one is more motivated to deliver that reward to the city.

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