NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Reporters were crowded around Pekka Rinne's locker waiting for the goaltender to arrive in the Nashville Predators' cramped dressing room Friday afternoon. The way the Stanley Cup final has gone so far, Rinne knew what was coming and was far more undaunted in front of the media masses than he has been in the crease thus far.
Rinne smiled through the whole thing before he was ushered out after a few questions. Frankly, there wasn't much to ask. Rinne didn't need any of us to tell him what a flop he's been.
The Predators are down, two games to none, to the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into Saturday's curtain-raiser – and almost certain roof-raiser – in Bridgestone Arena. If their veteran goalie doesn't turn his game around quickly, they're toast. Especially with Matt Murray so solid in the Pittsbugh net.
"You have to do your best to put it behind you," Rinne said. "With different situations, you want to be ready and learn from them and be ready for the next one. These couple days off give us a chance to regroup and get back to playing at the level where we know we are."
The break also gave Nashville coach Peter Laviolette a chance to enter into the Theatre of the Stupid. Not to cast aspersions upon my fellow media types, but the Preds coach was asked in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's third-period collapse if Rinne was losing his crease to rookie Juuse Saros. The thought seems preposterous.
Rinne is the face of the franchise, the longest-running Predator still in uniform. You're going to yank him prior to the first home Stanley Cup final game in franchise history? Please.
"Do you know who's starting?"
"Is it you?"
— FOX Sports Tennessee (@PredsOnFSTN) June 2, 2017
And I'm well aware of Rinne's 0-7-2 career mark as a starter against the Pens. You simply can't make that move now. You won with Rinne, you go down with him.
Laviolette was asked again here Friday and wouldn't budge.
"You guys ran away with this one yesterday," Laviolette said. "So I'll say it again. ... We don't talk about lineup decisions. That was what I said yesterday. I said nothing about a goaltender. I said, We don't talk about lineup decisions."
Rinne said he knew who was starting but wouldn't say if it was him. He said that he was in a much better mood than the reporters encircling him and said his teammates' support has been unwavering.
"They’ve been great when all the questions are like somebody died," Rinne joked. "It's been a great playoff run. The last two games haven't gone the way I wanted them to go. But I feel comfortable out there and will the same preparation I've been doing."
"'Peks' is the backbone of our hockey club," said P.K. Subban. "He's been solid and he has been all year and his career. We have to be better in front of him. We can't single out guys. With every result, there's a process to that, a turnover, someone who's missed an assignment. We've cleaned that up as a group. We've played some great hockey but they've capitalized on mistakes."
It has to be disconcerting to the Preds to see the bottom fall out of Rinne's numbers in the Cup final after they had declined in each of the three previous rounds. He had a 0.70 goals-against average and .976 save percentage in the four-game sweep of Chicago, which was followed by a solid 1.86/.932 against St. Louis and then a much more pedestrian 2.34/.911 in the Western Conference final against Anaheim.
In this series, its 4.71 and .778 as Rinne has made only 28 saves on 36 shots against. There's been two fluky own-goals but Rinne has been flat-out burned twice by Evgeni Malkin, has let the puck leak through him a couple of times and given up some ghastly rebounds.
We haven't seen a goalie melt down like this in the Cup final since Vancouver's Roberto Luongo acted like he couldn't stop a beach ball during his three games in Boston during the 2011 series the Canucks lost in Game Seven at home.
For his part, Saros did have a .923 save percentage during the regular season and the 22-year-old beat the Pens in October on a night when several Preds, including Rinne, were felled by food poisoning. Given that, Laviolette might have a short leash.
The Predators have outshot the Penguins, 64-39, in the first two games. At 5-on-5, the count is 54-35 and the Preds have taken 60.2 percent of the shot attempts overall. With numbers like that, you almost always win both games. Nashville left Pittsburgh with a goose-egg because Rinne was soft and Murray was staunch. Nashville also has to do a better job of staying at home. Three of the four goals against in Game Two were traceable to bad pinches from the defense.
The Penguins have done this before, remember. Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington's Braden Holtby came into their series against Sidney Crosby & Co. pretty hyped and left them beaten as well.
Subban believes in Rinne and reiterated that when he said Wednesday: The Predators are winning Game Three now that they're back home.
"It's confidence and feeling confident in our team," Subban said. "Coming back here there's no question we haven't played our best game yet. Our best is going to come tomorrow. When we're playing our best, no one can beat us in this league."
"If a player is confident about our ability to be successful, I have no issue with that," Laviolette said. "I'm confident with our group's ability to be successful as well."
When practice ended, the Predators formed a tight circle around each other at center. Players and coaches all locked arms and squeezed together. What was said was naturally kept close to the vest but the message was clear: Embrace the moment.
"The reality is that Thursday was June 1 and we're playing hockey and a lot of teams aren't," Subban said. "There's nothing to hang your head over here. There's not time to do that. It's just about realizing the opportunity you have in front of you."
"It's our home game, our favorite place to play," Rinne said. "There's amazing energy and our fans help us out a lot."