Though a lot of the team’s and media’s attention was focused on Rinne’s performance at the practice, there was still a lingering desire to talk about netminder Carter Hutton’s reality-defying save the night prior in the Predators 4-3 victory over the Maple Leafs.
“He had his highlight reel one last year versus [Philadelphia], so he needed to see if he could top that one and that was right up there,” forward Eric Nystrom said of Hutton’s save. “It was a huge save for us. The puck was bouncing all over the place and for him to get his stick on that and have the concentration to knock that one out of the air, that was a huge save and he can add that to his highlight reel.”
Nashville bench boss Peter Laviolette said he liked what he saw from the Predators as they rallied in the third period against Toronto on Tuesday. Ultimately, the two points kept Nashville on pace with Anaheim for the League’s top spot (72 points).
“Last night, we had to step on the gas,” Laviolette said. “We lost our lead and the guys showed a lot of character to fight back in that game. Those games sometimes, they can quickly go south… You’ve got to circle back and start playing our game again and we were able to pull that one out. It wasn’t ideal, but give a lot of credit to for the guys for fighting back.”
Other storylines fade away when the NHL’s leader in wins and a top candidate for the Hart Trophy (MVP) returns to the ice. When goaltender Pekka Rinne was announced to be fully recovered from a knee sprain suffered on Jan. 13 and joined the team for Wednesday’s practice, the Finn’s impending insertion back into Nashville’s lineup took centerstage.
“He’s Pekka Rinne, that’s all you can say,” Nystrom said. “He’s amazing, he’s a great goalie and he’s the backbone of this team. He’s so solid every single night and he works so hard every day. Hutton stepped in and played amazing, and we’re an even better team with [Rinne] in the net, so it’s exciting to get him back.”
Rinne said he feels 100 percent following a 22-day absence from game action, and that he’s eager to go back between the pipes when the Preds host the Ducks on Thursday.
“I think I tried to do whatever it takes to stay positive,” Rinne said. “I was able to get a lot of work off the ice and have some summer training-type of stuff to get me ready for these last 30 games or so and then the playoff run.”
The Predators depth in net with Hutton and Marek Mazanec allowed the team to not rush Rinne back to action, Laviolette explained following the practice. The club went 4-2-2 during the goalie’s absence, featuring wins over Washington and Pittsburgh.
“We’ve actually pushed this off,” Laviolette said of Rinne’s return. “I think we pushed this off a little bit to err on the side of caution. Carter was coming off of a big game in Pittsburgh as well, and we wanted to make sure [Rinne] got lots of practice under his belt and that he’s fully ready. I think from a comfort level of being on the ice in game shape...he’s ready to go.”
Now for Rinne, like his team, the next task on the checklist will be a tough test against the Ducks with the Predators nine-game home winning streak on the line.
“It’s a tough challenge [to face Anaheim],” Rinne said. “They’re a great team, they’re playing really well and it’s a great challenge. I never want to pick who I’m going to go against, and I think it’s a great challenge right away to go against one of the top teams.”
No. 1 versus No. 2 Showdown:
Anaheim and Nashville meet for the second time this season, and the first time at Bridgestone Arena, on Thursday with first place in the NHL on the line. Both team’s lead their respective divisions and hold nearly identical records - 33 wins and six overtime losses - with the Ducks playing one more game than the Predators.
Nystrom said the Preds are well aware of what lies before both clubs.
“We know [Anaheim has] a good team,” Nystrom said. “They’re big, they’re strong, they have some skilled guys and the last time we played them, they got us in the second night of a back-to-back after a crazy game in LA. We’re excited to be fresh and in our building. Having them come in here and playing for the top spot in the NHL, what more could you ask for?”
The fact that Rinne will be getting his first start in over three weeks on Thursday only adds to the drama.
“I’m really excited,” Rinne said of facing the Ducks. “It should be a fun game and hopefully I can get a good start right away and get it going...I’m really excited.”
“They’re a great hockey team,” Laviolette said of the Ducks. “Their forwards are big and strong, they’ve got good goaltending, they move the puck well, they have dangerous special teams, so they present lots of challenges. There’s a reason why they sit where they sit in the standings, and I think our guys are looking forward to it.”
Lines and Injury News:
Rinne was a full participant in practice and declared the starter for Thursday’s game following the session. Goaltender Marek Mazanec was reassigned to the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League prior to the Preds’ skate due to Rinne’s return.
Defenseman Ryan Ellis did not skate with the team at practice and is now the club’s only remaining injured player.
Today’s lines looked like this:
Forsberg – Ribeiro – Smith
Wilson – Fisher – Neal
Cullen – Jarnkrok – Bourque
Nystrom – Gaustad – Beck
Josi - Weber
Ekholm - Volchenkov
Bartley - Jones
Laviolette on Carter Hutton in Rinne’s absence:
“Carter was terrific. I think he answered a lot of questions. Your top guy goes out like that and everybody looked right away to the guy that’s coming in his place, and Carter did an outstanding job. Carter had big games for us; even some of the games where he didn’t get the results that he was looking for, his game in Montreal was excellent, certainly coming off the bench against Washington, he was excellent, as well as others.”
Nystrom on what getting Rinne back means for the team:
“It’s huge. He’s been playing so well all year long, and even though he got injured, it could be good for him to have a little break. He played so many games, and I know he’s fresh and rejuvenated and can’t wait to get back out there. He looks great in practice and he’s going to be huge for us down the stretch run like he has been all year. We’re so excited to get him back.”
Rinne on what he saw from Carter Hutton:
“He was huge. [He had] big wins, even a few of the losses, a couple in OT and a shootout loss, they’re huge points. You look at the standings and we’re still at the top. I’m really happy for Carter. It was tough for him to get wins at the beginning of the season, and now he’s been playing really well...It’s huge for him and big for our team too.”
Shot of the Day: