Unlike many of his brethren, the Nashville Predators’ goaltender doesn’t become a quivering mass of nerves or exude a stay-away-from-me vibe before games, and he seemed amused by media inquiries he fielded Friday about his sub-par play in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final and the urgency for him to win Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena.
“Every question is like somebody died,” he said, smiling.
Because he has not been as sharp as he was in carrying the Predators to the Western Conference championship — and because coach Peter Laviolette has declined to say if Rinne will start when the Predators will play host to a Cup Final game for the first time — a guessing game has raged during the two-day break between games. Will the Predators stick with Rinne or will they go to backup Juuse Saros, who came in after Rinne allowed four goals on 25 shots in Game 2?
There shouldn’t be a debate. They got here because of Rinne and this isn’t the time to change course. It’s time for them to make his job easier by not giving up as many high-quality scoring chances and odd-man rushes as they did in losing the first two games.
“I think you’ve just got to do your best to put it behind you,” Rinne said Friday. “Of course, you go through the games and look at different situations where you could be better and think about the next one. I think we think about this as an opportunity, a chance to regroup and get back to playing at the level where I feel I’m able to play.”
Rinne gave up eight goals on 36 shots in the first two games, bringing his save percentage down from .941 before the Final to .929 and raising his goals-against average from 1.70 to 1.98. His positioning has been off — he moved his arm just enough to give Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel an opening to slip the puck between his body and the post for Pittsburgh’s first goal in Game 2 — and his control of rebounds hasn’t been precise. But his teammates’ defensive play hasn’t been as cohesive as it was in the first three rounds, and against the Penguins, who can create something out of nothing and score in bunches, that’s a losing proposition.
“We have to do a better job defensively in a couple of circumstances,” Laviolette said. “The chances that we’ve given up are low. The shot opportunities we’ve given up are low. But yet we’re finding ones that I think we can clean up and help take care of some of the situations that we’re leaving against an opportunistic team.”
Rinne’s teammates still have confidence in him. So much, in fact, that they don’t feel the need to tell him so.
“I think he knows that,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “He’s been in the league for 11 years now. He’s been a starter for probably all 11. So what are you going to say to someone that is our best player every night? He knows it, we know it and there’s never a disbelief in Pekks or in this room about whether we can accomplish our goals. Pekks is a big part of that, and he knows it.”
Defenseman P.K. Subban, who hasn’t backed off his vow that the Predators will win Game 3, said the team shares responsibility for its situation.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that can say they played a full 60 minutes in Game 1 and 2,” Subban said. “We’re going to need that to defeat the defending champions, that’s for sure.”
The defending champions might lose forward Nick Bonino, who arrived in Nashville wearing a walking boot on his left foot and using crutches, the consequence of blocking a shot by Subban in the first period of Game 2. Bonino returned late in that period and played the rest of the game, a show of grit on a team that’s better known for dazzling skills. His status is day-to-day.
“Everyone’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure they can play. If not, someone else who steps in is ready to take on that challenge,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
The Penguins might have no choice but to replace Bonino. The Predators do have a choice of who to start in goal. Rinne is the right pick.
“Rinne, to me, has been the backbone,” said former King and NHL forward Ray Ferraro, a commentator for Canada’s TSN network. “Sure, he’s had two terrible games. They were terrible. He knows. But this year that hasn’t been the norm. Your best chance to win is what you go with and to me, it’s not even a question. He’s their best chance.”