First he was turning away Jonathan Toews’ one-timer with Chicago on the power play, then he was sliding across the crease to deny the Blackhawks captain again, this time off a 2-on-1 opportunity. Not even eight minutes into the contest in the Windy City on Thursday night and Predators forward James Neal had seen enough. He knew Nashville’s netminder Pekka Rinne was in the zone.
“Yesterday was probably his best game this season,” Neal said of the 6-foot-5 Finnish goalie. “I think that save he made on Jonathan Toews, that backdoor save, you could see it in him that he was feeling it and nothing was going to beat him. He made two backdoor saves on Toews that were really good and kept us in the game. It frustrated Toews and gave us a boost on the bench. That’s what you need to win big games like that, and he definitely did that. We were laughing a little bit on the bench, we had turned it over a few times and we were like, ‘let’s limit the turnovers,’ but at the same time, Peks was feeling it so maybe it’s all right... Just kidding of course.”
Following a two-game respite when goaltender Carter Hutton made a pair of consecutive starts on Feb. 13 and 15, Pekka Rinne has arguably looked locked in during each of the four contests he’s started. A 3-0-1 record, .969 save percentage and goals-against average of less than one (0.98 GAA) do their fair share of supporting that notion as well.
The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist says it’s difficult to describe what may be easier for outsider observers to see: when Rinne elevates his already all-world play to another level in certain games, it can be discerned that the opposition will be hard pressed to get even a single puck past him.
“There are games when you feel like you’re going to make the next save no matter what happens,” Rinne said. “You have a chance to make the save and help the team out. It’s hard to explain. For sure, last night I was feeling good. Like I always say, it goes hand in hand; you still need those blocks, you still need help if there's a rebound, and everything like that. I was getting that last night, so it’s a good feeling. I think this gains confidence for myself and for us as a team.”
Rinne’s latest example of being in the zone right from the opening faceoff came at an extremely important time for the Predators. In their third game in four nights and in a venue where they’d come up empty seven-straight times (including the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs), Rinne stopped 38 pucks for the visitors, including a save late in the second period with Andrew Shaw on a breakaway.
“That save was a read-and-react [play],” Rinne said of his save on Shaw in the final minute of the middle frame. “But you need that confidence, you need that mindset that whatever happens, I’ll take care of it. That’s not always the case, so it’s a good feeling when you have it.”
“For us, we’ve been really close to winning games there and just haven’t been able to close them out,” Neal said. “It was good to get a win in that building; I think it gives us confidence to know that we can win in there. We played them tough in the playoffs last year, I think they know that. They know what kind of game it’s going to be when we come to town and also when they come here.”