The Nashville Predators announced on Wednesday that they will send goalie Pekka Rinne, who has missed the past four months with a hip infection, to the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League on a conditioning assignment, signifying the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist is close to playing NHL games.
Coach Barry Trotz would not say when Rinne, 31, might be able to return to the ice for the Predators. Nashville has not set any kind of timetable during Rinne's rehabilitation process, but the goalie indicated he is close.
"I'm just going to try and focus on trying to get my own game back, but so far I feel real comfortable," Rinne said. "I'm happy how things have gone in practices and how things have gone so far. I'm actually a little bit surprised it's been going so well, but like I said, it's still a process.
"For sure, I feel like I'm really close to the game shape and now it's just a final couple of games before I jump on the ice with the Nashville team."
The Predators begin a five-game homestand Thursday. The Admirals have games Friday and Sunday. Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn and assistant general manager Paul Fenton will travel to Milwaukee and observe Rinne. If all goes well, it's possible Rinne could play at Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins or Thursday against the St. Louis Blues.
Without Rinne, the Predators did well to get where they are: They entered Wednesday four points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. They have used four other goalies in his absence, mostly rookie Marek Mazanec, currently in Milwaukee, and Carter Hutton. That tandem had one total game of NHL experience under its belt prior to this season. The Predators also traded for Devan Dubnyk, who has played only two games, going 0-1-1 with a 4.35 goals-against average and .850 save percentage.
Rinne's stats are dramatically better than the two who have shouldered most of the load for Nashville this season. He is 4-4-1 with a 2.31 GAA and .917 save percentage, compared to Hutton's 2.87 GAA and .904 save percentage and Mazanec's 2.80 GAA. and .902 save percentage.
It's no surprise Rinne's teammates are looking forward to his impending return.
"It's definitely exciting," said captain Shea Weber, who participated in his first practice with the Predators on Wednesday since winning a gold medal with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. "He's one of the best goalies in the League. It's going to be exciting to have him back."
Nonetheless, Trotz said the Predators should not look to Rinne to be their "savior." He couched that statement in response to a question about Rinne having to overcome two major hip surgeries since the end of the 2012-13 season.
"I'll say it's exciting for everyone involved," Trotz said. "For the players in the room. It's not about him being able to play his 'Pekka Rinne' game when he decides he's ready and we pull him up and he plays his first game. It's not going to be anything about that. To me, it's about Pekka Rinne back in the nets and playing and doing what he loves, and I know he'll get to a very high level based on his work ethic, and if he can stay injury-free and not have any setbacks he will get to a very high level as a goaltender.
"… So it's not about Pekka coming back and being the savior. I think it's about Pekka coming back and adding to our mix. And if he can get his game to the level close to what he's capable of we're a better hockey team. Plain and simple."
Part of what has made a timetable for Rinne's return so uncertain is the fact his injury has little precedent in the NHL. He sustained an E. Coli infection, which was potentially serious beyond the scope of Rinne's playing career. However, Rinne said he was not initially aware of how serious it could have been.
"No, I never thought of it in that way," he said of whether it was a potentially life-threatening situation. "I actually didn't know about E. Coli bacteria. I think it was a good thing that I didn't really know, but eventually when you talk to the doctors and (infectious) disease people you realize it's kind of a serious thing that you've got to take care of.
"But at any point it didn't make me nervous or scared, and as soon as they tackled the infection, the medication started working, and I think that gives you a lot of confidence that we are on top of it, and the doctors were really good to me and the medicine was good to me."
The 6-foot-5 Finn said one of the hardest parts mentally was when he first learned he would require a second surgery to get rid of the infection, knowing he would undergo a second long rehab process.
"You go through the rehab and all that during the summer," he said. "You feel like you're ready to go and then something like that happens. Yeah, I think that was the hardest part in the beginning and realizing it's an Olympic year and all that stuff. But after that, you realize that it's your health and it's pretty important and you start looking at a more of a long-term future, and since that I think I've had the right mindset, just kind of going a week at a time.
"I've been getting such good care and I felt all the time that I'm on the right track. Eventually I'm going to be back on the ice, so that's given me some kind of peace to it."
Rinne called Wednesday "a big day for me," and said he was excited to get back to playing and to go to Milwaukee, where he spent parts of three seasons. He said he imagined the adrenaline rush to be so strong that he would not remember much of the first game once it ends.
And once Rinne is back in Nashville and ready to play, he doesn't seem ready to cut himself any slack.
"I always expect a lot of things from myself," he said. "It doesn't matter what the situation is. I expect myself to bring my best game at that moment. In any time, I feel like no matter who we play against or what's the situation, I always want to win. I'm a pretty competitive guy. I hope I can bring that aspect of me every single day."