WINNIPEG, Manitoba – I happened to look down at the Nashville goal as the teams were preparing for the national anthems before Game 6 Monday night in whiteout-crazy Winnipeg.
There was Nashville Predators netminder Pekka Rinne leaning against the crossbar looking calmly around at the crowd.
Not sure, but he seemed to have a kind of bemused grin just before the house lights went down.
All he needed was a fedora and a cigarette and he could have been a character in a 1950s Humphrey Bogart flick.
Cool? Rinne was the epitome of cool.
This in spite of the fact he and his teammates were staring at a 3-2 deficit in their intense second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets.
This in spite of the fact the 35-year-old Rinne was coming off a Game 5 in which he was torched for six goals on 26 shots en route to a humbling 6-2 loss.
This in spite of the fact he’d been pulled in two of five games in this series and boasted a 3.92 goals-against average and .887 save percentage in this series and was sitting at 3.22 and .898 throughout the playoffs — an entire world away from a regular season performance that made him the heavy favorite to win his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.
But there he was looking like a man without a care in the world.
Turned out there was little to be concerned about for the netminder and his colleagues, as the Predators won their second crucial game in Winnipeg, shutting down the high flying Jets (sorry, we had to) for the second time in this series, this time by a 4-0 score, and forcing a winner take all date with Winnipeg Thursday back in Nashville.
“Like I said early on, we played too long and too well to be in this situation and obviously wouldn’t have it any other way than going at home and having the opportunity to play Game 7 in front of our fans in Bridgestone. So very excited about that,” an upbeat Rinne said after he had turned aside 34 shots for his second shutout of the spring.
There’s still much hockey to play in this yo-yo of a series where no team has managed to string together consecutive wins, let alone think about the two remaining rounds before a Stanley Cup champ will be crowned, but this was a moment that has the potential to be meaningful long after the fact.
Because when it looked like Rinne and the Predators simply weren’t up to the task against a Jets team that had poured 22 goals into the Nashville goal in five games and bested Nashville twice in their own noisy barn, the Predators did exactly what they told people they would do after Game 5: They believed.
Then they went to work.
And while the pair of highlight reel goals by Filip Forsberg will garner plenty of attention, as they should, and the fulfillment of a P.K. Subban guarantee of a Game 7 will also garner lots of buzz (we’re less impressed by that frankly) the belief begins and ends with Rinne.
It has been so for much of his career in Nashville, it was so during the regular season when the Predators won their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy and it was so on a night when all of that hard work was on the brink of being undone.
“They really needed him to steal one,” former NHL netminder Chris Mason, now a broadcast analyst, told The Athletic. “He has historically bounced back extremely well from a tough outing. He’s done it all season and even in this playoffs so far. So strong mentally to be able to put [aside] a rocky performance and come out two days later and play the way he has. Sends a message to the rest of the team room and allows them to focus on playing their game.”
And there it is.
It’s not that Rinne has been bad in this series.
In fact, Austin Watson joked that if they had extra players on the bench it might have been fairer to bench some of the Predators skaters than to pull Rinne as was the case in losses in Games 1 and 5.
“Because it’s definitely not his fault,” Watson said. “For the most part — or all the part — it’s us in front of him just not taking care of the front of the net. Tonight it was a little bit of both. Unbelievable from Peks and defensively we were sound.”
Watson was exactly right on all counts really.
There have been moments in this series of constantly changing ebbs and flows that the Predators have not looked like the team that boasts one of the most defensively talented teams in the NHL, instead looking careless and disorganized. And Rinne has paid a price for that.
On this night, though, they mirrored the dedicated effort that saw them come up with a crucial 2-1 win in Winnipeg in Game 4.
Rinne was excellent in that game. But the stakes were a whole bunch higher Monday night.
“That’s Peks. That’s what he’s been like all year. We don’t expect anything less from him,” said defenseman Matt Irwin. “He’s our backbone he has been all year. He makes big, timely saves when we need it and tonight was no different.”
It wasn’t the magnitude of the shots but rather the quality and timeliness of them.
In the first period, with Nashville up a goal thanks to a Viktor Arvidsson deflection, the Predators started to wobble. They took three minors in the last 11 minutes or so of the first and killed all three.
A weird deflection off a linesman sent Winnipeg sniper Mark Scheifele in on a break in the second period with the score still 1-0 Nashville, but he shot wide of Rinne and then couldn’t get the rebound off the end boards to go as Rinne scrambled back into position.
And so it went.
I sat down with Rinne before the start of the playoffs. He was candid, as he always is, in reliving the heartache of losing in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final at home against Pittsburgh last June. But he also talked with great passion about the hunger from within the group to get back there and rewrite the final act.
Maybe it means nothing, but on a night when the Penguins were finally vanquished by arch rival Washington, ending their two-year reign as Stanley Cup champs, Rinne helped pull his team back from the brink.
“I think it just shows that we have a really tight group here and you want to play for your teammate and that’s how I see it,” Rinne said. “I feel like it was desperate effort and just play for each other and we knew that we need to improve and we did it as a team. Obviously some of the individuals really stepped up and made a difference tonight, but it was total team effort.”
Thursday night will mark the end of the road for one of these two terrific teams.
I already feel a bit melancholy about it frankly.
For the team that moves on, Game 6 will become part of the tapestry. If the Jets win, it’ll be bouncing back for a third win in Nashville en route to the franchise’s first-ever conference final appearance.
If Nashville is victorious in going to a second straight conference final, Monday’s standout performance in Winnipeg will loom even larger.
“We knew right after (Game 5) that we’re built for this,” Subban said Monday. “We’re built to come on the road and win big games. That’s a championship effort tonight. I can’t say enough about this group. It’s the best group of guys I’ve ever played with. They’re good people. I guess the difference in these situations, good people understand what’s at stake. You look at our lineup from our goaltender out, everybody sacrificed their bodies and did what they had to do.”
When we cleared Canada Customs after flying back into Winnipeg for Game 6 late Sunday night, the customs agent confided her hope that Winnipeg would close out the series on Monday night, first, because she was a Jets fan and second because she was trying to sell her house and there was an open house scheduled for Thursday.
If the Jets are playing in Game 7 no one will show up at the open house, she predicted.
Looks like the cool Mr. Rinne and company had other plans.
(Top photo: Jason Halstead /Getty Images)