PITTSBURGH -- A key to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final will be Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, not only how he plays in front of the net, but how he plays behind it.
Rinne leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs in goals-against average (1.70) and save percentage (.941) among goaltenders who have played more than five games. But he does more than make saves. He keeps opponents from taking shots in the first place.
Rinne acts like a third defenseman in Nashville's system, diffusing the opponent's forecheck and triggering the Predators' offense. That could diminish the Pittsburgh Penguins' greatest advantage: centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best players in hockey, who excel deep in the offensive zone.
Game 1 is at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
"We have to make sure we keep him in the net," said Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist, who played with Rinne in Nashville for six seasons before he was traded to Pittsburgh on June 27, 2014. "He makes their [defensemen] play an easy game, and we don't want that. We want to make them play our game."
Video: The guys discuss the strong play of Rinne
The Predators play a 1-3-1 system in the neutral zone, not unlike the one used by Ottawa Senators, who took the Penguins to double overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final. But they have the NHL's best top four on defense -- Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, "four Erik Karlssons" according to Penguins forward Chris Kunitz. And they have Rinne.
Nashville clogs the neutral zone, pinches off the puck carrier and forces him to dump in the puck. Rinne goes behind the net and grabs it.
What separates Rinne from other puck-handling goaltenders is that he is so aggressive and skilled at acquiring the puck, giving him more chances to handle it.
Rinne sometimes drops into a butterfly behind the net. During the Western Conference Final, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Josh Manson joked that Rinne would make 35 saves in the net and 25 outside of it. When opponents try to thwart him by rimming the puck high on the glass, Rinne will throw his 6-foot-5 frame against the wall. Most goaltenders don't do that because of the risk the puck will hit a partition and ricochet in front of the net.
"He might be the most aggressive that I've seen," said NBCSN analyst Brian Boucher, who played 13 seasons in the NHL as a goaltender. "He probably figures that the bad bounce will only occur maybe once every 10 games. They're willing to live with that, because what it does is it really frustrates the opposition. If that's all they can get is a dump and he kills it, they've won."
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Rinne said he has never been told to stay in the net.
"I remember sometimes when I've made a mistake, and it looks bad when you're behind the net or something like that," Rinne said. "But I feel like if you do it the right way, it's a big advantage."
Once Rinne controls the puck, he doesn't necessarily move it immediately. That backs off the forecheckers because they don't know what he's going to do and have to respect him. He plays the puck to his safety-valve defenseman, rims it around the boards or clears it himself. Often the Predators are skating back up ice with speed. Usually the worst that happens is a regroup.
"For me, it's awesome to have that," Ekholm said. "You always have to skate hard back, but you know if he knocks it down, they aren't going to come as hard because they know he can play the puck well. If we can break down their forecheck, that's really good for us because we can get the offensive game going."
None of this is a secret. Predators coach Peter Laviolette said he has used essentially the same system in the NHL for a decade. Rinne has been playing pucks in the NHL for about as long. But the Predators have the right mix of personnel, and they're clicking. Opponents try to carry the puck through the neutral zone, try to avoid dumping it in, try to chip it across the zone into the corners where Rinne can't play it, try whatever they can. Easier said than done.
The Chicago Blackhawks struggled so badly against Nashville in the Western Conference First Round that they scored three goals in the series and got swept, despite having great players like center Jonathan Toews, right wing Patrick Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith. Coach Joel Quenneville called the Predators' system "Red Rover," after the playground game where kids link arms, call over an opponent and the opponent tries to break through the chain.
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The Ducks talked about keeping the puck from Rinne often during the conference final. Too often they failed to do it. "The minute that puck gets stopped, they already have possession," Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said. "So that's where it's tough."
The Penguins are averaging 3.05 goals per game in the playoffs, best among the 16 teams, and don't necessarily need to sustain a forecheck or win the possession battle. They are outstanding on the counterattack.
But the Predators are averaging 1.81 goals-against per game in the playoffs, best among the 16 teams.
Red rover, red rover, send Crosby right over.