NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Pekka Rinne fills up so much of the net at 6-foot-5, and the Nashville goaltender led the NHL with 43 wins while facing more shots than anyone else.
Jimmy Howard was on quite the run for Detroit himself, leading the league in wins and on pace to top Terry Sawchuk’s franchise record of 44 victories himself before breaking his index finger and then injuring his groin.
Nashville already has home-ice advantage in this first-round series starting Wednesday night, and the Predators also feel they have the edge in net thanks to Rinne. They will need Rinne at his best if they are to beat their Central Division foe for the first time in three post-season tries.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock thinks the goalie matchup is going to be real important in this series.
“Our goaltender was outstanding for us for a long time and then hurt for a long time. It looks like he’s on his way back,” Babcock said. “He’s going to have to look at the guy across in net and outplay him.”
That could be a challenge.
Rinne, a Vezina Trophy finalist a year ago, not only won more games than any other goalie this season but also faced more shots (2,153) and had more saves (1,987). Rinne also became the first goalie to lead the NHL in wins and assists (five) since Martin Brodeur did it twice in 1999-2000 and 2005-06.
“I think Pekka’s one of the best goalies in the league,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday. “I’m totally confident in him.”
Rinne had quite the workload this season, tying for most appearances with 73. His 43 wins set a franchise record, and he also had an 11-game winning streak between Jan. 7 and Feb. 4 that matched the longest such sting in 13 years.
But Trotz gave Rinne a couple of practices off before the playoffs started. Rinne also missed a start April 3 against Minnesota due to an illness, and Trotz started Anders Lindback in the regular season finale at Colorado. Rinne wound up playing most of the third period of that 6-1 win when Lindback hit his head when Colorado left winger Cody McLeod collided with him in the crease.
Rinne, who gets better the more pucks he sees, said he feels great and is eager to play Detroit in the playoffs.
“Right now I feel really excited for the playoffs and just re-energized,” Rinne said.
The native of Kampele, Finland, also is going into his third post-season as Nashville’s starting goalie. His teammates remember only too well his play in downing Anaheim in the opening series and against Vancouver in the second even though Nashville lost that series in six games.
“We know what to expect with Pekka,” Nashville captain Shea Weber said. “He was great for us last year in the playoffs.”
Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said Rinne is so big it’s hard to score on him with the goalie playing angles really well. That means the Red Wings, who have scored only nine regulation goals in their last six games, must get plenty of bodies in front of Rinne and be ready for rebounds.
But Lidstrom believes Howard, who posted allowed 1.92 goals against with a .927 save percentage in the last five games, knows the challenge of playing against Rinne.
“He’s going up against one of the best goalies in the league, and I think Howie should be up there as well,” Lidstrom said. “It’s going to be a great matchup.”
Howard was playing well enough this season he played in the All Star game. He also knows Rinne fairly well from their days in the American Hockey League, even though this will be their first matchup in the NHL post-season. Howard expects a tight series between teams that split the six games in the regular season and is looking forward to going up against Rinne.
“It’s a game within a game,” Howard said. “You can be playing two opposite games one guy can be getting a ton of action and the other guy can just be sitting down at the other end just watching – being a spectator. I doubt that’s going to happen here in the playoffs. You’ve got to find a way to be better than the guy at the other end.”
Nashville lost the two previous playoff appearances against Detroit, going down in six games in both 2004 and 2008. The Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2008. But these Predators are much deeper with Weber and defenceman Ryan Suter in front of Weber with scoring up and down the roster.
Not only do they have Rinne this time around, they also are a popular pick as the favourite to win this series. Rinne said they want to win enough nothing changes with additional pressure from the outside.
“I feel comfortable with it, and I think playing always against Detroit now we feel like we are on the same level,” Rinne said. “And it’s going to be a great series and just looking forward to it.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.