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After biggest game of his career, Rinne has to be atop Conn Smythe candidates

Pekka Rinne had the performance of his career in Game 6, stopping 38 shots to send Nashville to the Stanley Cup final, and the Predators' netminder has to be considered as a top Conn Smythe candidate.

In Game 6, the Anaheim Ducks dominated the Nashville Predators by just about every conceivable measure. The shots in the contest were 41-18 in favor of the Ducks. Anaheim’s shot attempts percentage was above 65 percent. The Ducks out-chanced the Predators, earning nearly 30 attempts from quality scoring areas and getting clean, open looks from high-danger spots on the ice nine times throughout the evening. Anaheim even battered Nashville in the faceoff circle and with physical play, holding an edge in hits despite having the puck almost the entire outing.

Yet it’s the Predators, not the Ducks, who are heading to the Stanley Cup final, and Nashville has Pekka Rinne to thank. In a post-season where the Predators netminder has been remarkable, Monday’s performance against Anaheim was his masterwork.

Other outings throughout these playoffs, the credit has gone to Nashville’s defense as much as it has their netminder, and that’s not without reason. Just look at the defense corps. Roman Josi is proving on a grander stage than ever that he deserves praise among the best defensemen in the league. P.K. Subban continues to win fans with his talent and exuberance. Ryan Ellis is blasting his way up the scoring charts. Meanwhile, the underrated Mattias Ekholm keeps moving along as a quiet but effective shutdown defender. It’s a solid group, one capable of shutting down an opposing offense, just as they did in Game 5 against the Ducks when the undermanned Predators, playing without their top two centers, managed to hold Anaheim to just one goal on 33 shots.

So, in that sense, it’s true that the defense has played no small part in Rinne’s play. The defenders were the ones who helped stifle the Chicago Blackhawks’ best offensive weapons and helped Rinne pitch two shutouts as the Predators swept the Western Conference’s top team. It was that same defense that also held the St. Louis Blues’ attack to less than 25 shots in three of the six second-round games. Likewise, the talent on the back end is what resulted in Anaheim registering less than 30 shots in each of the first three games of the conference final.

But Game 6 wasn’t the defensive performance we’ve come to expect out of coach Peter Laviolette’s Nashville squad. Rather, it was the type of lopsided outing the Predators have yet to play this post-season. However, there was Rinne, facing his heaviest workload of the playoffs and turning aside rubber at an astounding rate. There were point-blank saves on net-front scrambles, kick saves on shots from the slot and more than a few pucks that had to be stopped through considerable traffic. In the end, it was arguably the greatest game of Rinne’s NHL career, not only because he stopped all but three of the 41 shots that came his way but because of the size of the stage. This was a crucial game — Nashville’s shot to clinch the series on home ice with the threat of a game in Anaheim on the horizon — and Rinne stood on his head.

And that’s the reason why he has leapt ahead of everyone in the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

We’ve written here before about a number of Conn Smythe candidates, from Erik Karlsson to Evgeni Malkin, and each prospective winner has his case, to be sure. Karlsson has been the steadying presence on a defense-first Ottawa Senators club that has shocked the hockey world with its playoff performance, and his offensive numbers and penchant for being involved in the game-deciding play certainly give him a strong case. Speaking of strong offensive cases, Malkin leads the entire post-season with a whopping 23 points in 17 playoff games. Sidney Crosby isn’t too far behind, either, with 19 points of his own. There was talk about Marc-Andre Fleury, as well, but when he lost his starting job to Matt Murray, Fleury’s candidacy likely went out the window. It can come back, of course. Say Fleury happens to come into a potential Game 7 and win it for the Penguins. That puts him back in the conversation. And if Pittsburgh gets into the final, Fleury takes the reins and the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, his candidacy is fairly solid. 

But as of this writing, with the Predators through to the final and the Penguins on the cusp of returning, how could you award the Conn Smythe to anyone but Rinne?

When Rinne was posting a .976 save percentage after the four-game sweep of the Blackhawks, the assumption was that he’d suffer some sizeable correction that would drag his numbers down from their Superman-esque heights and to a more Clark Kent-like total. But Rinne kept his cape firmly in place through the second round. When the Predators dispatched of the St. Louis Blues, Rinne was still boasting a .951 SP, which was tops among all goaltenders at the time. The expectation that he would slip even further was still there, however, but he proved the Ducks were no kryptonite. As the Western Conference final closed on Monday, Rinne boasted a .941 SP for the post-season. That’s the best SP of any goaltender who has suited up in at least two full rounds.

If there’s any knock on Rinne, it might be the aforementioned blueline, but Nashville’s defenders can only do so much in terms of preventing pucks from reaching the net. The scoring chances — more than 300 of them at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick — have come Rinne’s way throughout the post-season. Rinne’s SP on those scoring chances, though? A jaw-dropping .952, a mark better than any other goaltender who was alive in the conference finals. That’s not to mention Rinne has turned away all but 13 of the 102 high-danger chances that he has had to face at five-a-side, and his 5-on-5 SP is tops among all goaltenders who have been starters throughout this post-season.

Rinne has been as consistent as any other player in the post-season, too. He’s really only had two bad games, but every single bad outing has been followed by a run of rock-solid play from Rinne. In Game 2 against St. Louis, Rinne allowed three goals on 20 shots, but he bounced back the next night and allowed only five goals on the next 112 Blues shots he faced. Similarly, Game 2 was a tough one against the Ducks, as Rinne was beaten four times on 26 shots. Over the remainder of the series, though, Rinne allowed just eight goals, turning aside each of the other 123 shots he faced. 

Which brings us back to Game 6. If Rinne was going to solidify his Conn Smythe candidacy, he needed that standout game at this point in the playoffs, a contest where it was evident he stole a victory for the Predators. That happened Monday night. Yes, he allowed three goals against, but Rinne also stopped 38 shots, plenty of which came during some tense moments in the contest. Colton Sissons, Pontus Aberg and Austin Watson earned the game’s three stars, but Rinne was Nashville’s hero on a night when they were dominated like never before this post-season. And for his play in these playoffs and the game-stealing performance in the biggest game of his career, it’s Rinne who has to be the odds on favorite to win the Conn Smythe as the Predators head into the first final in franchise history.

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