PITTSBURGH -- No one understands better than Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne how fortunes can change quickly during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Going into the Predators' first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, Rinne was considered one of the favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs.
Then came two forgettable performances in Pittsburgh to open the series, and there was some speculation that the Predators might even switch from Rinne to backup Juuse Saros.
[RELATED: Complete Predators vs. Penguins series coverage | Fans give Predators send-off to Pittsburgh for Game 5 of Cup Final]
But Predators coach Peter Laviolette said he never gave serious thought to the move. Rinne's play got them this far; Laviolette understood they would sink or swim with him.
Once the series shifted to Nashville for Game 3, Laviolette's unwavering faith in his starter paid dividends. Rinne played two outstanding games, making 50 saves on 52 shots, and the Predators won them by a combined 9-2. Now they are two victories from a Stanley Cup championship.
The best-of-7 series is tied 2-2, with Game 5 here Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
Rinne has never gone this deep into the playoffs before, and he understandably is cherishing every moment along the way.
"It's amazing," Rinne said Wednesday. "The best time of my life. Obviously you don't want to look back yet. We've been playing for a long time and never had this opportunity.
"It means everything to me right now. Just living my dream right now."
Video: Rinne, Predators' defense shut down Penguins
The dream was more like a nightmare as recently as May 31. He was pulled in Game 2 that night and the Penguins seemed like his personal kryptonite. He allowed eight goals in the first two games.
Rinne picked up on the outside negativity, saying that the media's questions were as if "somebody died."
Nevertheless, support from his teammates was steadfast, and another bright outlook came from Laviolette, the most businesslike and often-unsmiling coach.
Laviolette put it all in perspective for Rinne and his teammates after Game 2.
"Believe it or not, I do smile once in a while," Laviolette said.
He was positive despite the fact that the Predators trailed the series 2-0.
"It was after a tough loss and it was June whatever when we got back home," Laviolette said. "We were 0-2 and I said, 'How lucky are we?' How lucky are we to be playing hockey in June?'"
Video: Rinne silences the critics with series-tying win
Rinne went into the 2017 playoffs with a 22-26 career record but won 14 games, giving him 36 wins in 68 games, tying him with Antti Niemi of the Dallas Stars for the most in NHL history by a Finland-born goaltender.
Rinne's best playoff moments have come at home. He has started all 10 of Nashville's home postseason games and has a sparkling 1.44 goals-against average in those games. However, he and his teammates know that he'll need to win a game in Pittsburgh if the Predators are to win the Cup.
"We know we can play better in this building," Predators captain Mike Fisher said. "We know we're going to have to. Games 1 and 2 … we liked our game for some of it, and other parts of it, they took over and they capitalized. This game, we're going to have to be at our best."
Home teams have won 37 of the past 53 games in the Stanley Cup Final dating to 2009, including all four this year.
"We're playing really well these four games," Rinne said. "I mean, [Pittsburgh] is a dangerous team. Two teams that skate well up and down the ice. But I feel like we're pretty happy with how many chances we've created per game.
Video: PIT@NSH, Gm4: Rinne dives for amazing blocker stop
"Those two first games, that was the one thing we were a little bit disappointed about. We generated a lot of chances. They didn't get that many, but still they won those two games."
Usually by this time of year, Rinne is back in Finland, vacationing with family and friends. His regular routine, which includes a camping trip in Finland, has been disrupted this spring, not that he's complaining.
Still, he will have a chance to help make up for the absence on an annual fishing trip, either in Sweden or Norway, near the end of the summer.
Rinne will be on the lookout for bears.
"You have to be aware," Rinne said. "A couple of friends, my friends, are good outdoorsmen. I'm following them."
You could say they protect him.
Just like his defensemen have been doing during the Stanley Cup Final.