The Nashville Predators didn't qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. A main reason why was because their No. 1 goaltender, Pekka Rinne, was limited to 24 games because of a hip injury.
These days, Rinne is healthy. And it's no coincidence the Predators are rolling.
Rinne's performance to date (14-3-1, 1.97 goals-against average, .927 save percentage) has the Predators vying for first place in the Central Division. The problems he experienced when he first tried to come back from hip surgery are behind him.
"Like I said, I had a good summer," Rinne told reporters last week. "I fixed a few things that I usually do in the summer. I increased my training a lot. I wanted to be in the best shape that I could possibly be. That has helped a lot.
"Obviously being back on the ice and working on the ice, you can translate that on to the ice what you did off the ice. I was never scared [coming back], but obviously it's something that it's a little bit different struggling with something like that for the first time in your life or career. It was a little bit different, but I never once thought that, 'this is it.' Obviously this year I wanted to get off to a good start, but other than that I wasn't really scared about it."
It's showing in his play. The 32-year-old has allowed two goals or fewer in 13 of his first 18 games this season and leads the League in wins. With the NHL season at the quarter mark, Rinne is our choice to win the Vezina Trophy as the League's top goaltender.
Rinne's start has played a huge role in Nashville's resurgence. It's provided confidence in the players in front of him, knowing their last line of defense is there to back them up. The Predators have scored 15 more goals than they've allowed, the fourth-best differential in the NHL.
"You can focus on your guy and boxing him out knowing Pekka is going to scoop up that rebound and there won't be too many second opportunities," Predators captain Shea Weber told NHL.com. "It's crazy just practicing with the guy, the shots you put along the ice at his pads and he scoops up with his glove. I have never seen it anywhere else, and he works very hard at it in practice and converts it into games. He eliminates a lot of second chances all by himself."
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings -- Including playoffs, the 28-year-old has played 237 games since the start of the 2011-12 season. But Quick is showing no signs of slowing down. In 18 games this season, the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is 10-4-4 with a 2.22 GAA, .932 save percentage (tied for the NHL lead) and two shutouts. It will be interesting to see if Kings coach Darryl Sutter finds more nights off for Quick before the playoffs get underway, but it will be difficult knowing more often than not what to expect from Quick when he starts.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins -- There's no denying he's had problems in the playoffs in recent years, but it's awfully difficult to ignore Fleury's numbers this season; in 16 games, the 29-year-old is 12-3-1 with a 2.09 GAA and .926 save percentage and is tied for the League lead with four shutouts. Pittsburgh rewarded its No. 1 goalie earlier this month with a four-year, $23 million extension.
Also in the mix: Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks; Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues; Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens