The Nashville Predators go 4-2-2 while they’re without the best goaltender in the free world. After being out just two days past the three-week mark, Pekka Rinne is ready to return. Crisis avoided, right? You bet, you’d take that outcome every time.
So the focus shifts to Thursday night back at Bridgestone Arena as Nashville hosts the Anaheim Ducks – the very club with whom they share the League lead. Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette declares Rinne his starter. High drama; this is going to be great. Players, fans and broadcasters can’t wait to see the goaltender return to hold Ryan Getzlaf and “Scorey” [Corey] Perry off the board.
But just three minutes into the game, Rinne mishandles a puck he had just stopped and Anaheim’s shorthanded chance ends up in the back of the net. Hang on a minute - that wasn’t in the script. More than that, just four and a half minutes into the second period, the Preds trail 4-0. Wait a second, this game wasn’t supposed to look like this.
You’re asking a fair question if you’re wondering how does a game that was supposed to be so good end up so bad? A few things to consider:
First, focus on Rinne. There are two aspects to a player’s return from a long layoff. The mental and the physical. In my view, Rinne was physically ready to go. The knee was 100 percent by all accounts. He’d had ample practice reps leading up to the Anaheim game. However, on the cerebral side, there is no substitute for actual game reps to sharpen the mental aspect – the decision-making side of a player’s game. That’s the part that got the better of Rinne on the first legitimate play at the Nashville net. Under normal conditions, he either smothers Jakob Silfverberg’s initial shot or he pushes it out to the other corner, away from the Anaheim forechecker.
Second, consider the team in front of Rinne. Going into the Anaheim game, two things may have undermined the Predators’ preparation. The first was Rinne’s return to the roster. Sounds strange, I know, but I believe the group let the netminder’s return take away from the urgency required to be their best versus a team like the Ducks. The moment you allow yourself to say “Pekka’s back, problem solved, we’ll be fine …” that’s the moment that distracts you from preparing to put your “A-game” on the ice.
Along that same line, if you recall the moments just before this game started, top-line center Getzlaf was announced as a scratch from the Anaheim lineup. He was injured in pregame warm-up – a total surprise to everyone on either side of the matchup. Yet another distraction in terms of the Predators’ collective mindset. “Hey, if they don’t have Getzlaf, they can’t possibly be as good as we thought they would tonight.”
Uh, not so.
So Rinne’s return ends up a clunker for the entire group rather than a glory-filled win to claim sole possession of first place in the NHL. Is that cause to sound the alarm? Not at all, but there is a teaching moment in it for the group. We’re familiar with Laviolette enough to know that class is in session all day Friday as the team prepares to host a handful from the Eastern Conference. League-leading, goal-scorer Rick Nash brings his 30-15-4 New York Rangers to town for a matinee matchup on Saturday.
See you there!