NASHVILLE -- As Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne prepares on Tuesday to play his first game in 133 days -- pretty much the equivalent of an offseason in the middle of the NHL season -- his goaltending coach Mitch Korn said he thought Rinne's biggest task would be to manage his emotions.
"Not be too energetic," Korn said of the game at Bridgestone Arena against the Pittsburgh Penguins. "Not want to do too much. Not want the puck so bad that he doesn't wait for it. Managing the energy, I guess."
As Rinne's return date from an E. coli infection in his hip neared in recent weeks, the goalie himself anticipated what his first game would be like in terms of the adrenaline rush. He said he thought it was possible he might not remember the first game at all after it had ended.
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Tuesday, he spoke of how he would deal with butterflies.
"Not too bad yet," Rinne said after Nashville's morning skate. "But I'm sure once the game time gets close, the nerves are going to come. Couldn't be more excited. It's been a long time coming. Obviously, first and foremost, it's a really big game for our team. Personally, I'm happy to be back out there and just really excited."
With 21 games remaining the Predators trail the Dallas Stars by six points for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. They're hoping a healthy Rinne can be a difference-maker.
In the nine games he played before coming out of the lineup, Rinne posted a 2.31 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. That's half a goal better than Carter Hutton (2.85), who has carried the load. Hutton, who has a .903 save percentage, has played 32 games, the most of any Predators goalie.
In the offseason, Rinne had hip surgery. He said in those nine games he played his game was coming.
"I was on the right track, feeling comfortable and getting my feet underneath me," said Rinne, who did not play a full 60 minutes in a preseason game. "It's just nine games. It's such a short stretch of games. It's hard to kind of say, typical start of the season. Pretty solid start, but too bad it ended it like did."
Too bad, indeed, but now the Predators are happy to deal with the present instead of the past. Rinne played in two games with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League on a conditioning stint, one Friday and one Sunday, before returning to Nashville. He won both but didn't see a lot of shots, stopping 33 of the 35 combined in the two games.
Among the final transitions Rinne must make is to NHL speed and to get his timing.
"It's a different level," Trotz said. "Even Peks came back and said, 'Man, that's pretty slow down there.' Even changing from that speed to the speed of the National Hockey League and then going against the leading scorer (Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby). Probably a real strong move by me."
In addition to reacclimating to the game's speed and timing, Korn said a useful aspect of the conditioning assignment was for Rinne to grow reaccustomed to managing his focus.
"I would have liked to have seen him get about 80," Trotz said. "But every game presents itself. Even the first game where he didn't get a lot of shots, a lot of goaltenders will tell you that's the hardest game to play because you start watching the game rather than playing the game. You get 35 shots or so, you start playing the game."
Korn said, "We're catching a moving train and he looks fine. When he left here on Wednesday last week, we felt he was shot-ready and when he went to Milwaukee it was for one reason: to become game-ready, managing not only 60 minutes but really a three-hour block, if you think about it, and getting that fever pitch for that amount of time, so that was really the premise to accomplish that."
As far as returning into the teeth of the Predators' schedule -- after facing Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh on Tuesday, the Predators on Thursday host the St. Louis Blues, who are tied for the second-best record in the NHL -- Rinne said he didn't mind, noting you cannot pick your opponents.
Pittsburgh is winless in its past three games (0-2-1), so Crosby said the Penguins were not going to worry about generating more traffic in front of the net just for Rinne's sake.
"I think you just go with the same approach," Crosby said. "You try not to worry about that. We want to try to get more shots anyway. Whether he's getting his first start or not, that's the focus we want to have going into this game anyway."
Though butterflies might have eluded Rinne during the morning skate, he expected them to return as the day progresses. He said it's a good thing.
"Well, yeah, you do, in a good way," he said. "You always want to bring your best. That automatically means you're thinking about the game and it makes you a little bit -- I don't know if nervous is the right word, but butterflies -- I think it's a pretty normal feeling and you kind of always look forward to that. When you don't get any butterflies, you try to pump yourself up and try to get it going. I'm 100 percent sure it's not a problem tonight. Plenty of butterflies."