NASHVILLE -- Why now?
That was among the thoughts goaltender Pekka Rinne had as he sat on the Nashville Predators bench on Thursday, pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
That is the kind of thought he has been clearing from his head to prepare for Game 6 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports). The Predators trail 3-2 in the best-of-7 series. But they're back home at Bridgestone Arena, where they are 9-1 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Rinne is 2-0 with a 1.01 goals-against average and .962 save percentage in the Final.
"This is our opportunity," Rinne said Saturday, "and I think you try to do anything in your power and prepare the best you can for this one."
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Put this into broader context. Rinne was drafted in the eighth round (No. 258) in the 2004 NHL Draft. He spent three seasons with Milwaukee of the American Hockey League before he graduated to the NHL. He has spent nine full seasons in Nashville now, more than any of the other Predators. He's 34 and fully invested in this team, in this town, in this dream.
Until this year, he'd never made the Western Conference Final, let alone the Stanley Cup Final.
Video: Analyzing Rinne's recent struggles on the road
Game 5 wasn't simply Game 5. It was Game 82 of his season in terms of games played in the regular season and playoffs. It was Game 577 of his NHL career and Game 746 of his career in North America.
It was a chance to take a 3-2 series lead back to Bridgestone and set up a clinching scenario in front of tens of thousands of fans, from the stands to the plaza to Broadway and beyond.
And Rinne lasted 20 minutes.
"You're playing in the finals, the biggest stage in your career, and you're not happy obviously," Rinne said. "But I never take it personally. It's not about me. It's all about us. I try not to take it personally. The reasoning behind it, I always believe that it's to wake up the team. Of course sometimes if I'm not getting the job done, it's better to put the other guy in."
Break it down in slow motion. Here came Penguins captain Sidney Crosby on the first shift, splitting the defenseman, twisting his body, ringing a shot off the post and drawing a penalty at the 50-second mark.
On the ensuing power play, Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point. Predators forward Austin Watson tried to block it, but he failed and screened Rinne in the process. The puck went between Watson's legs and Rinne's pads at 1:31.
Video: NSH@PIT, Gm5: Rust shovels a backhander over Rinne
Penguins forward Bryan Rust made it 2-0 at 6:43 on the rush, backhanding a shot that ticked off Rinne's glove and glanced off the inside of the right post. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin made it 3-0 with 10.2 seconds left in the period when his shot from the left wing ramped up the outstretched stick blade of Predators defenseman Yannick Weber and flew into the upper right corner.
And Rinne had 40 minutes to think about it.
"Of course you have those thoughts, 'Why right now? Why pucks are getting deflected in off our guys?' or something like that," Rinne said. "You try to work so hard that the luck is also on your side. When bounces are not going your way, sometimes you question …"
He didn't finish his sentence. Did he mean the hockey gods? His Sisyphean existence to this point?
"[You] have second thoughts in your head," he said. "But that's life."
Rinne can't control his teammates, who must play better in front of him. He can't control the bounces, which tend to even out over time, if there is enough time. All he can control is how he reacts to what happened.
Video: The guys discuss the improvement in Rinne's play
The good news is that he played poorly in Games 1 and 2 on the road, allowing eight goals on 36 shots, and was spectacular in Games 3 and 4 at home, allowing two goals on 52 shots. Perhaps the pattern will continue.
Sure, the bad news is that if there is a Game 7, he will have to figure out a way to win in Pittsburgh. But he has to get there first.
By the time the puck drops on Sunday, he will have had almost three days to recover, rest and reset.
"Right now I don't really trust the momentum thing," Rinne said. "Obviously they played a really strong game last game and beat us pretty bad, but right now there's no favorites. We get to play at home. We get to prepare for this. It's just a one-game [situation]. Our mentality is going to be just taking care of this one game, and after that we have all the chances."