After wins in Games 1 and 2, the Pittsburgh Penguins hoped they wouldn’t be waking the sleeping giant in the Nashville Predators’ net when the series shifted south. Unlucky for them, Pekka Rinne finally opened his eyes.
Rinne’s performance in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final were less than impressive. The all-star goaltender, who has only played for the Predators in his 10-season career, allowed eight goals on 38 shots — including four goals on 11 shots in Game 1. The Penguins seemed to be coasting into their two consecutive road games and Rinne, who was replaced in the latter stages of Game 2 by backup Juuse Saros, looked like he was out of the steam he produced all throughout the 2017 playoffs.
This is where our redemption tale begins.
Sure, the Penguins were able to capitalize first in Game 3 just 2:46 into the contest on just their third shot, but it was lights out for the road team after that. The Finnish netminder stopped the next 25 shots he faced in the contest, while his offense lit Penguins goaltender Matt Murray up for five goals, scorching Pittsburgh in a 5-1 rout.
Although the momentum seemed to completely hang on the Predators’ side heading into Game 4, it was the Penguins who led the series, 2-1. Game 3 was a big win for the Western Conference champions, but it would all be almost for nothing if they couldn’t return to Pittsburgh with a tie series. For the Penguins, a 3-1 series lead all but means etching on the Stanley Cup is soon to follow.
With the boisterous crowd louder than ever, the Predators were able to jump out to a 1-0 lead at 14:51 when Calle Jarnkrok cashed in a rebound in the slot. However, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was not ready to go down quietly, as he received a beautiful pass from Brian Dumoulin to put him on a breakaway against Rinne. The perennial superstar bested the backstop on the chance just 1:06 after Jarnkrok’s goal.
The second period proved to be huge for the Predators, as both Frederick Gaudreau and Viktor Arvidsson capitalized on glorious chances. As important as the goal support was in the 3-1 lead, it was Rinne who marveled in the period.
The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist denied playoff hero Jake Guentzel point blank and then kept the puck out of the net on a breakaway chance by veteran Chris Kunitz. It was his save on Kunitz that directly led to Gaudreau’s goal just 16 seconds later. However, his best sequence perhaps of the entire postseason occurred with about 11 minutes remaining in the middle period.
Again, Crosby worked his way to skating freely on a breakaway, snapping a low backhand shot that was kicked away by Rinne. The quick-witted Crosby was able to gather the rebound, which was handled by the Predators goaltender. With multiple Predators skaters desperately trying to keep the puck underneath their goalie, the Penguins’ Bryan Rust chipped away at it until it was free. Who else but Guentzel hopped on the loose puck in the crease with what seemed to be an empty net. As he poked at it to tie the game at 2, Rinne dove across and got his blocker in the way. The Predators were able to gather the puck and exit the zone.
After stopping all eight shots in the period, he shut Pittsburgh’s offense down again in the third period, making 10 saves in the final stanza. This included multiple flurries of sustained pressure by arguably the NHL’s most dangerous offense. Filip Forsberg added an empty-net goal late in the game, thrusting the Predators to a 4-1 win and a 2-2 series tie.
“He was unbelievable,” head coach Peter Laviolette said after the contest. “It seemed like some of their chances came in flurries. We let a couple people in behind us tonight, and they seemed to be flying the zone a little bit, and caught us a couple times. That led to Crosby’s goal, and it led to a couple other chances.
“There was at least two times at the net where he had to make the save, and then maybe one, two or three more saves after that. In the last minute and a half, he held his left leg out there forever to stop three or four attempts. He was extremely competitive tonight. He was on point.”
Rinne, the MVP of the 2014 IIHF World Championship, was outstanding in the 2017 playoffs before the Final began. After a sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in Rd. 1, Rinne led the NHL with out-of-this-world numbers, including a 0.70 goals-against average and a .976 save percentage. Those numbers were near impossible to emulate in the second and third rounds, but he still posted benchmark stats (a combined 2.05 GAA and .928 save percentage in 12 games against the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks).
After both wins in Nashville, the Predators have worked their way to a best-of-three series with potentially two games on the road. If the Predators can sneak out of Pittsburgh with a victory on Thursday, it gives them a chance to close the series at home in Game 6 on Saturday night. The Predators are an astounding 9-1 at Bridgestone Arena this postseason.
Nashville is only two wins away from hockey’s ultimate prize. If Rinne can continue his exceptional performance to guarantee those victories, The Music City will be singing his praises until the end of time.
Feature image courtesy USA Today
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