Nashville's hopes rest on Rinne
The hardworking, perennial underdog Predators are personified by their goalie
Pekka Rinne, an unheralded 258th overall pick, has been the NHL's best in net
A consistent workhorse, Rinne anchors the most talented Predators team yet
Has there ever been a more gradually ingrained and consistent build in the history of professional sports than the Nashville Predators? Forget the franchise's "nontraditional hockey market" tag. Nashville may not be Hockeytown, but it sure has become a Hockey-tonk. The fans show up in consistently high numbers and have a rootin' Tootoo'n good time. The Predators have slowly come to feel like their team. Maybe it's still not their game, but it is hockey done their way.
It helps that the organization has unwaveringly fostered an underdog mentality over the past 13 years that mirrors the hopes and dreams of singer-songwriters who are drawn to the lore of the legendary skinny honky-tonk strip on Broadway. Just as the busker-balladeers drifting into town find approval, band mates and maybe even a career as they pass the hat and play for tips, so do castoff, hard-luck hockey players come to Nashville to find defined roles, acceptance and a place to ply their trade. It has become a haven for players who are willing to play hard every night, sacrificing self for the good of a team coached by the same man since its inception and managed by the same guy, David Poile, who first hired that first coach: Barry Trotz.
Consistency and work ethic have been the Predators' hallmarks from the outset. The imperative has been competitiveness. From expansion-era grinders to today's youngish group that pressures more than past editions and has enough skill to finish more plays, the Preds are heading to the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons. This year, though, there are elevated expectations. There are plenty of reasons for them, not the least of which are human nature and the want for more when five postseason trips have yet to yield a series win, but one reason stands out above all others: goaltender Pekka Rinne.
That's right. The goalie with the peculiar moniker -- say Peh-ka Ree-nay out loud with a southern drawl and try not to smirk -- is the reason the Preds can prevail this time around. Sure, defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are stars who seemingly never come off the ice for coach Trotz. And youngsters like Patrik Hornqvist, Blake Geoffrion, and Colin Wilson -- all at different stages of their development and assimilation into the Predators' culture -- give the franchise more gallop to their grind than ever before. Astute trades for Sergei Kostitsyn and Mike Fisher added to the team's depth and skill like never before.
Still, it comes down to Rinne, whose rise in the NHL goaltending ranks is in the image of the team that drafted him in 2004 with the 258th pick: Unheralded, unhurried, with three years in the AHL fraught with disappointment, yet never without the work to get to this point. Since being left off Team Finland for the 2010 Olympic Games, Rinne has been the best goalie in the game. That timing also coincided with the Preds settling on him as their definitive number one, signing him to a long-term contract extension and trading netmate Dan Ellis. Rinne settled in and this season has been near the top of the league in all meaningful statistical categories. He has been so consistent that he has only had four nights off since Christmas.
Now, the Predators hope to play long past Easter, and Rinne is the reason. He is their guy -- low maintenance, in the lineage of hardworking underdog netminders from Tomas Vokoun to Chris Mason, Ellis and now Rinne. He has refined his game with goaltending coach Mitch Korn so that his technique has caught up to his athleticism. At 6' 5", Rinne is an imposing figure crouching in his crease, ready to kick out those long legs with startling quickness and agility. He also has that intangible of making the big save at critical junctures. He rarely gives up a momentum-changing goal -- a very underappreciated aspect of the goaltending craft.
In the end, that's the story for the Predators and Rinne -- undervalued assets with staying power, like the country song that stands the test of time and gets more popular slowly but surely. Just like Nashville itself.