Pekka Rinne’s return to the Nashville lineup tonight doesn’t just mean the team is getting their starting goaltender back, it means the Western Conference leading Predators will have their best and most important player back in the lineup.
Rinne, 32, has been unbelievable this season. In what many thought would be a transition year for the Predators under new coach Peter Laviolette, Rinne has flourished, quieting critics that said former coach Barry Trotz’s defensive style was a big reason for Rinne’s spectacular play. And when Rinne went down with an injury his value – and claim to the throne as Nashville's MVP – became extremely evident.
The Finnish netminder’s injury occurred Jan. 13 against the Vancouver Canucks. Carter Hutton, Rinne’s backup, mopped up in that game, stopping all 10 shots he faced in 17 minutes of duty. But there was little time to celebrate Hutton shutting the door in the Predators' 5-1 victory. The immediate concern was the health of Nashville’s starter.
It’s no secret that Hutton is no Rinne, but that’s not meant as a dig at the Nashville backup. Rather, it’s praise of Rinne, who has been the best goaltender in the NHL this season. Following play on Jan. 13, the Predators were the best team in the league with a .941 save percentage at 5-on-5 and third in all situations with a .924 SP. As of Feb. 4, the Predators remain first in 5-on-5 SP (.936), but have fallen to fourth in all situations. The slip is due to the team's .908 SP at 5-on-5 and .896 SP in all situations since Rinne went down. Add to it all that with Rinne sidelined the Predators lost consecutive games for the first time all season – and it happened twice.
From the day Hutton slid into the starting role, the 29-year-old netminder finished 27th in SP among goalies who played at least 150 minutes at 5-on-5. Though his record from Jan. 16 to Feb. 3 was 4-1-2, he allowed three goals or more in five of his seven starts and had a SP below .900 in four of those games.
Contrast those numbers with how Rinne was playing before his injury and it paints a vivid picture of why the veteran goaltender should be in the running for the Vezina Trophy.
As of Jan. 13, Rinne had a 5-on-5 SP of .944. Of goaltenders who had played at least 1,000 minutes, the next closest was Ottawa’s Craig Anderson with a SP of .938, followed by Montreal’s Carey Price whose SP was .937. He had played more minutes at 5-on-5 than any other goaltender to that point, had faced the second most shots (828), and turned aside 782.
If that’s not enough, with the score close, Rinne’s 5-on-5 SP jumped all the way up to .952, the best mark of any goaltender to play 1,000 minutes. He faced 566 shots, turned away 539, and allowed only 27 goals in 1,245 minutes.
It’s not as if Nashville was the most stingy team in the league, either. As of Jan. 13, the Predators gave up the 18th most shots at 5-on-5, which is to say they relied on the play of their goaltender just as much as any other team in the league. And with Rinne manning the net, there was, and is, never any cause for concern.
While Predators captain Shea Weber gets the press with his booming shot and steady defensive play and upstart Filip Forsberg has been one of the best stories of the season, Rinne remains the key to Nashville’s success.
Montreal's Price has done everything to deserve the Vezina and will likely take home the honors, but don’t be surprised if Rinne makes the vote closer than you would expect. Rinne has been nothing short of spectacular for the Predators and that’s what you would expect from Nashville’s most important player.