NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Pekka Rinne never feared his NHL career might have been ended by an E. coli infection that shut down the Nashville Predators goaltender for 51 games last season.
Not knowing when he would be back in net again was another matter.
Doctors simply couldn't tell him when he would be healthy enough to play, a scary uncertainty with the goalie left simply waiting for the medicine to work.
"When you have surgery and you're working your way back you kind of have a timetable," Rinne said. "At that time, I didn't have any timetable. That was mentally the hardest part and you just hope the medicine is going to work and eventually you're going to get rid of that illness or bacteria."
This time a year ago, Rinne had just been cleared to move from crutches to weight-bearing exercises.
Now the 32-year-old Finn has just been selected to his first All-Star game. He leads the NHL in wins and has helped the Predators sit atop the league standings midway through this season.
The 6-foot-5 Rinne has played 36 of Nashville's first 41 games, and he is 28-6-2 putting him five wins ahead of Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen. Rinne goes into Tuesday night's game with Vancouver not having lost since a 2-0 loss Dec. 13 at San Jose ??? the span of a month.
Coach Peter Laviolette, in his first season as Nashville's head coach, had only watched Rinne a few times before being hired last spring. Now that he's worked with the goalie for a few months, Laviolette has been impressed most by Rinne's work ethic and competitiveness.
"No quit in his game in practice or in games I think is a reflection on how he tries on everything, competes on everything, gets mad when he gets beat, and he takes all that competitiveness and brings it on the ice," Laviolette said. "You talk to him off the ice, he's one of the nicest men you'd ever want to meet."
Rinne already was a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who led the NHL with 43 wins in the 2011-12 season when he played in a franchise-record 73 games.
His troubles started in May 2013 when the goalie needed arthroscopic surgery on his left hip after playing through discomfort during the season. He recovered in time for the next season and had played nine games when the hip became infected in late October. Rinne needed another surgery, antibiotics and was on crutches for weeks in an ordeal he used to make himself better.
"Mentally, I got way stronger last year just battling with that and kind of learning not to worry about things," Rinne said.
Rinne finally returned to the ice March 4 and wound up playing in 15 games down the stretch. He then went to the World Championship where he was named the MVP leading Finland to a silver medal.
The goaltender didn't stop there. Rinne, who turned 32 last November, changed trainers and used a nutritionist to improve his diet last summer to help him be even stronger going into training camp after last season.
"I have to keep doing that and keep building," Rinne said. "But yeah, the major thing is just kind of getting over last year's injury and not thinking about it and not worrying about it."
No goalie has played more than Rinne's 2,187 minutes so far this season, and he ranks second in goals-against average at 1.98 and third with a .930 save percentage. He also is tied for third with three shutouts.
The Predators have turned to his backup Carter Hutton only five games this season, usually for one of a back-to-back set of games. Rinne said winning certainly makes playing even easier.
"You feel happy. You come to the rink with a smile on your face, and it makes a huge difference," Rinne said.
Rinne insists he will let Laviolette when he's tired. Laviolette credits the schedule for allowing him to play the goalie so much, and the coach will try to manage Rinne's schedule going forward.
"But he wants to play too," Laviolette said.
Especially after last season.