Dan Hamhuis of Canada (5), goalkeeper Carey Price of Canada (31), Jonathan Toews of Canada (16) and Shea Weber of Canada (6) celebrate their 3-0 win over Sweden in the men's gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne can't wait to test himself in a game.
The Predators, who announced Wednesday that they are sending Rinne to their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, are cautiously waiting to see if the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist can help them chase down a playoff berth.
Both Rinne and the team will have a better idea of where he is after the conditioning assignment for games Friday and likely Sunday in this latest step in his recovery from an E. coli infection in his surgically repaired left hip. Rinne has been limited to only nine games this season.
Coach Barry Trotz said the Predators will be monitoring Rinne after each practice and game.
"He's at a point where we've got to find out where he is game-wise and also body and mind," Trotz said of Rinne.
The Predators start a five-game home stand Thursday night hosting Tampa Bay just four points back of the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot with 23 games remaining. They missed the playoffs last year for only the second time in nine seasons.
How quickly Rinne rejoins them depends on how he fares in Milwaukee.
Rinne practiced with the Predators on Wednesday before travelling to Milwaukee, and he called this a big day with doctors giving him the green light for the latest step in his long recovery. He has been sidelined since Oct. 24 for an infection in the hip surgically repaired May 9, and Rinne said he's focusing on getting his game back and help the Predators.
"So far I feel really comfortable," Rinne said. "I'm happy how things have gone in practice and how things have gone so far. I think I'm actually a little bit surprised it's been going so well. But like I said, it's still a process but for sure I feel like I'm really close to game shape and now it's just a final couple of games before I jump on the ice with the Nashville team."
Rinne, 31, is sixth in the NHL with 152 wins since the 2008-09 season and has 30 shutouts since 2008-09, which leads all goalies during that time. He hasn't played since Oct. 22 in a 2-0 loss at Minnesota. He is 4-4-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.
The Predators have played four other goalies this season trying to make up for Rinne's absence. Currently, Carter Hutton is their starter, and he is 13-9-4 with a .904 save percentage and 2.87 goals-against average. Trotz said what they've been missing without Rinne is a game-changer who can mean the difference in as many as 20 points in the standings each season.
"He's an elite goaltender and steals games maybe when you don't deserve it," Trotz said. "He can steal points."
Trotz said they're not sure what they'll see from Rinne.
"It's not about Pekka coming back and being a saviour," Trotz said. "I think it's 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. To me, it's about Pekka for hopefully the next five or six years. He's a difference maker."
Captain Shea Weber, who practiced with the Predators on Wednesday after helping Canada win the Olympic gold medal Sunday in Sochi, said the Predators are definitely excited about the prospect of Rinne returning to the lineup as they try to chase down a playoff spot.
"We've been through a lot this year and to see what position we put ourselves in here four points out coming in it's not going to be easy by any means," Weber said. "If anyone can do it, we can."