Minutes after disposing of the Detroit Red Wings in Game 5, a joyous Nashville Predators team filed into their locker room beneath the stands at Bridgestone Arena dancing to the cheesy sounds of Lionel Richie's "All Night Long."
Head coach Barry Trotz made his way around the raucous room and shook every player's hand. After the trainer turned down the music, Trotz immediately pointed to his sweat-soaked goalie Pekka Rinne, who sat slouched in his corner stall. "This guy right here," the coach barked. "He made it possible."
Rinne reluctantly grinned and shook his head side to side, as if deflecting the praise like one of the 151 saves he made in his dominating first-round performance. He looked almost embarrassed.
The moment typified the paradox that is Pekka Rinne.
On the ice he is a self-assured, 6-foot-5 puck-stopping monster. His lanky arms whip around like an octopus and his famously fast feet make him more mobile than an iPhone -- giving whole new meaning to 4G speed.
But off the ice, "Peks" is an unassuming 29-year-old who talks softly and is infamous for being slow in the mornings. He's also a guy whose journey from eighth-round 2004 NHL Draft pick to Vezina-contending $7 million-a-season man offers a lesson in hard work, humility and patience.
Drafting Rinne now might look like the work of a brilliant Nashville scouting staff. But really, it was a gamble on a young backup Euro-goalie with mammoth size and raw athleticism -- who was rough around the edges, with a somewhat erratic style and propensity for getting beat high-blocker.
Could he stop the puck? Yes. Was the unconventional Finn also in need of coaching and development? Absolutely.
Nashville had just the man for that job in goalie coach Mitch Korn, who had helped bring some order to a similarly unorthodox, but immensely gifted, goalie in Dominik Hasek during his Vezina-winning tenure with the Buffalo Sabres in the '90s.
In the Finnish pro league, Rinne was the backup to the elder Niklas Backstrom (now of the Minnesota Wild). The untested Rinne arrived in North America in 2005, signing a two-way contract with the Preds, who immediately assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee.
Rinne was expected to serve as Milwaukee's No. 2 goaltender, but quickly took over the AHL team's starting job.
For the next two seasons, Rinne sowed the seeds of the "impekkable" system of goaltending currently on display. Aggressive cross-crease pushes. Suffocating vertical air space with his straight posture. Reading plays better and finding pucks in traffic. Rebound control. Lots of video. Lots of drill work.
By the start of the 2007-08 season, Rinne, after enjoying several call-ups to the big team the season before, appeared ready to take the backup slot behind Chris Mason. But the more experienced Dan Ellis outperformed Rinne in training camp and Rinne, much to his displeasure, was once again sent back down to Milwaukee.
The send-down marked a turning point in his career. Rather than sulk, Rinne -- disappointed, to be sure -- instead used it as motivation, sparking him to another remarkable season in the minors, where the young goalie developed into a star.
The following season, Rinne was ready when the veteran Mason departed, and he hasn't given up the net since. And next season, when Rinne's new seven-year, $49 million contact kicks in, he will become the NHL's highest-paid goalie.
You'll find few pundits who don't think he deserves it.
"Character and competitiveness" are the two words Korn uses to best sum up his goaltender's top traits. Fittingly, the stabilizing force in the star student's personal life is longtime Finnish girlfriend, Kirsi, who is training to be -- you guessed it -- a teacher.
But perhaps no endorsement is more telling than those of his peers. Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist recently told me that he has never seen "a goalie so big move so fast." Veteran Tampa Bay netminder Dwayne Roloson just last week in an interview picked Rinne as the League's top goalie. Martin Brodeur has said he's a fan of the Finn. Former NHL goalie and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes has long sung Rinne's praises.
Meanwhile, Pekka quietly prepares for Round 2, pecking away in his quest for the Cup.
Author: Ken Baker | NHL.com Goalie Insider