Pekka Rinne. Image by: Getty Images
Even if you subtract the own goals, the Preds’ star stopper is really fighting the puck. The Cup final will end in a hurry if Rinne doesn’t rediscover his game.
PITTSBURGH – Maybe we know now what the Pittsburgh Penguins did with their free time before the start of the Stanley Cup final. Evidently, they Googled “Pekka Rinne Voodoo doll.” They played it subtle with their sinister toy in Game 1: just 12 shots, a Mattias Ekholm own goal, a Jake Guentzel game winner after 37 minutes without a shot. But it appears Pittsburgh loaded the doll with pins prior to Game 2 Wednesday night.
Rinne just couldn’t buy a save when he needed one. After the Predators drew first blood on a beautiful display of patience by Pontus Aberg, Guentzel, clearly the proprietor of the Voodoo doll, chopped a seemingly harmless rebound right through Rinne, who got caught cheating off his post.
The second period was relatively uneventful, but the dam exploded early in the third period. Rinne kicked a juicy rebound onto the stick of – who else? – Guentzel, who buried his 12th goal of the playoffs, putting him two behind Dino Ciccarelli for the NHL rookie post-season record. Three minutes later, the Rinne doll yielded a second own goal in as many games, this time off the skate of Vernon Fiddler. Then, 15 seconds after that, Evgeni Malkin roofed a wrister through Rinne as if he wasn’t there. That was the end of Rinne’s night. Juuse Saros entered the game in relief. It’s been quite a fall for Rinne, a guy who entered the Stanley Cup final as, arguably, the Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunner. He posted a .976 save percentage in Round 1, .932 in Round 2 and .925 in Round 3. We knew he’d regress to the mean as a guy with a .917 career SP, but this is bananas. Rinne has stopped just 28 of 36 shots in the five periods and change he’s played so far in the final. That’s good for a .778 SP.
Defenseman Ryan Ellis said Tuesday Rinne was the team’s MVP all season long. It stings, then, that his play has hurt his team so far. Keep in mind Nashville has a 64-39 shot advantage so far in this series. At the other end of the ice stands Mr. Cucumber, aka the cool Matt Murray, efficient in his movements, steady and unflappable. The Penguins easily could’ve trailed after two periods Wednesday, but Murray wasn’t having it. He finished Game 2 with 37 saves.
It’s never fun to harp on Rinne’s game. He’s one of the sport’s most earnest, accountable players. He again strode into the dressing room to face reporters after the game when many goaltenders would go into hiding when faced with the same situation. But his struggles can’t be ignored. They’re simply too loud. He has some soul searching to do as the series shifts back to Nashville.
“You have to put it behind you,” Rinne said. “It’s for me, my dream. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s been a long time, first time having a chance to play for the Cup, so we just have to bury these two games and just go ahead and find a way to find some success.”
Predators coach Peter Laviolette noted after the game that the blitz of third-period goals came on odd-man rushes, and he thus didn’t want to pin the blame on Rinne. The players were also extremely quick to defend their goaltender. But there’s a troublesome undercurrent to what they said, even if they didn’t realize it.
Said right winger James Neal: “We felt like we were in control of the game. It’s just a few areas that we let up for one second, and then they find the back of the net, and then we’re down one.”
Said defenseman Roman Josi: “Tonight we played two really good periods and had a lot of chances in the second and in the first, so we’ve got to stick to our game plan. We’ve got to do the same thing, and we know it’s going to go our way if we stick with our system.”
Said defenseman Ryan Ellis: “It’s not what ‘Peks’ is doing. It’s our team. It’s the guys in front of him. If we’re going to get back in this thing and make a go of it, it’s got to be our system that pulls through. And that’s the bottom line.”
The problem with explanations like those: the system is in fact working. The Predators have been the superior team territorially in this series. They’ve generated more chances. They’re doing a lot of things right, but they’re not getting the saves they need. Odd man rushes or not – at least two of Game 2’s goals were of the variety Rinne needs to save.
No one can hide from what’s happened to Rinne so far in the final. The decline in his numbers is simply too sharp. He absolutely must rediscover his game if Nashville wants any chance to make this a series.
“Pekka’s been our best player all year,” Neal said. “He’s going to continue being our best player all year. So it’s the least of our worries.”
It will help to go home for a raucous atmosphere in what will be Music City’s first Stanley Cup final game. But the decibel level will mean nothing if Nashville’s masked man can’t quiet down his play.
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