PITTSBURGH -- To say Pekka Rinne’s wall has cracks in it is to nitpick. Cracks would be too strong of a word. Call them hairline fractures. Yes, his numbers have technically declined throughout the playoffs. He posted an unbelievable .976 save percentage against the Chicago Blackhawks during the Nashville Predators’ sweep victory. He then “fell” to .932 against the St. Louis Blues in Round 2 and “crashed” to .925 against the Anaheim Ducks.
His arrow seems to be pointing south as he regresses to the mean a bit, but, boy, a regressing Rinne sure has been dominant this post-season. He’s far and away Nashville’s frontrunner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy should they win the Stanley Cup. He’s playing the best hockey of his career, and he isn’t even sure why.
“It’s hard to explain,” Rinne said Sunday in Pittsburgh. “We started off really well against Chicago, and you gain some confidence. Personally I was playing well, and once that ball starts rolling, you feel better and better, and things go your way.”
Rinne will never be the analytics crowd’s darling. His advanced numbers such as medium- and high-danger save percentage typically fail to wow. But he’s undeniably athletic, with the game’s best glove hand, and he doesn’t always get enough credit for how smart he is. Rinne, ever humble, said he felt his success this spring was more about the team in front of him finding its consistency. It’s true his numbers are partially the result of the amazing defense corps in front of him limiting the high-quality chances against him, but Rinne also uses his skills to work with his defense extremely well. He has excellent rebound control, and he handles the puck deftly, halting scoring opportunities and helping quickly start rushes going the other way. His advanced numbers, specifically medium- and high-danger save percentage, are up in these playoffs, too. He’s been a force, and he’s one of the greatest challenges facing Pittsburgh right now.
“He’s such a great puckhandler,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “That’s one of the things that helps them out. It’s almost like having a defenseman out there. So it’s just being aware of that, keeping the puck away from him. But we’ve done a good job especially the last few games getting a lot more pucks to the net, creating more rebounds, so hopefully we can continue from there.”
And yet, as gargantuan a shadow Rinne casts, figuratively but also literally at 6-foot-5, it’s not even guaranteed Nashville has the goaltending edge in this series. Marc-Andre Fleury gave Pittsburgh a bushel of amazing, acrobatic performances early in the playoffs, contributing more than any other Penguin to their series victories over Columbus and Washington. But when Fleury falters, he really falters, and the Pens decided they wanted the straight-line rather than the roller coaster. That meant installing Matt Murray back into the lineup midway through the Eastern Conference final versus Ottawa. He was healthy, recovered from the groin injury he sustained before Game 1 against Columbus, and it was only a matter of time before the starter reclaimed his crease. Nashville has one player who’s even reached a Stanley Cup final. Pittsburgh has a full team of experienced champions, including Murray, who won 15 games last post-season, tying an NHL rookie record, and backstopped his team to a title.
“I definitely feel a little bit more comfortable this year,” Murray said. “It’s still pretty nervewracking. It’s still such a big stage. I’m still pretty young, I’m still relatively new to this league and I’m still trying to prove myself. There are still nerves for sure but maybe a little bit less than last year.”
Nerves? You’d never know looking at Murray’s cool body language in net. It’s hard not to give Pittsburgh an edge over Nashville in the goaltending department now, as amazing as Rinne has played. Murray’s peripheral numbers throughout the 2016-17 season were among the best in the NHL. He’s a calm, efficient mover in the crease. Two seasons ago, when he was dominating in the AHL, then-Wilkes-Barre/Scranton GM Jason Botterill told me he loved Murray’s mental game, the fact he had such a short memory and never lost focus after being scored on.
And Murray carried that same mentality to the NHL. He’s an ice man and, coincidence or not, the Penguins have played very different hockey with him in net compared to Fleury this post-season. They suddenly started peppering Ottawa with shots in the second half of the Eastern Conference final. Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey said it was more the result of learning how to beat Ottawa’s strange player formations, in which a forward hangs in the neutral zone like a third defenseman, than it was playing differently in front of Murray.
“To break the secret: we haven’t had a meeting yet where everybody said ‘OK! Murray’s back in, you guys are gonna play this way,” Hainsey deadpanned. “It just hasn’t happened yet. So I can tell you that from behind closed doors.”
Defenseman Ian Cole doesn’t buy the concept of playing differently in front of one goalie versus the other, especially because he believes equally in Fleury and Murray.
“We should be able to put the same product on the ice regardless of who’s in goal,” Cole said. “That being said, maybe there is a little more comfort with certain guys. I don’t know. But we’re very fortunate to have two world-class goaltenders on our team. If something does happen to one of them, the other one can step in and play fantastic for us. But as far as do we play differently? Maybe unconsciously, but certainly not consciously, because we have a ton of confidence in both those guys.”
Maybe the Pens are being diplomatic, or maybe Cole’s right and Murray’s effect on the team is only an unconscious one. Regardless, the Pens look more dangerous with Murray on the ice. He’s established himself as one of the game’s most consistent netminders. His save percentage never dipped below .910 in any month this season.
So that puts the pressure on Rinne to be better than good. He’ll need to recapture the magic he showed against Chicago if he wants to outduel the young man 200 feet way in the opposing crease. The goalie matchup should be a treat to watch in this final.
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