PITTSBURGH -- Goaltender Pekka Rinne has been with the Nashville Predators longer than any current member of the team, so he's endured plenty of heartache. Now at age 34 in a career that dates to 2005, he's finally getting a chance to play for a Stanley Cup.
A three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, Rinne has never been better than during this postseason. He had a 2.42 goals-against average and .918 save percentage during the regular season but has soared in these playoffs with a 12-4 record to go along with 1.70/.941. He leads playoff goaltenders in all three categories.
"We started off really well against Chicago," Rinne said Sunday, referring to the Preds' first-round sweep. "Then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well. Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way."
Rinne finished the sweep at 0.70/.976, becoming just the fourth goaltender in the expansion era to sweep a series at 0.70 or less.
"For a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job," he said. "I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now."
In eight career games against the Penguins, however, Rinne is just 1-5-2 with a 3.57 goals-against average and .880 save percentage. Those are by far his worst numbers against any team. Playing just twice a year at most against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- and Rinne sat the teams' October meeting in Nashville -- makes it tough to figure out the Pens' stars.
"You see them a lot in highlights but you know there's a lot of speed," Rinne said. "Crosby is such a complete player who can score and is a good passer. Malkin is a big body who protects the puck really well. From a goalie's perspective, you have to be on your toes when those guys are in your zone."
Rinne is one of the game's best at handling the puck, something the Penguins are going to make a point of emphasis.
"You have to keep him in the net," said Pittsburgh's Patric Hornqvist, a former teammate in Nashville. "Make cross-corner soft chips. We want their 'D' to play a hard game, not an easy game. They're too good if you give them time and space. It starts with the way we play the puck and how we keep it away from him."
Rinne said he's expecting a different kind of series than the Preds' last two sets.
"It's two fast teams and I'm expecting a fast series with high tempo," Rinne said. "We played a fast team in Chicago and then played St. Louis and Anaheim, who were physical. I'm expecting a combination of both. In this series, we've got to be fast and we've got to be physical."
Both teams are getting healthier as the final starts. The Penguins should get Hornqvist back in their lineup while the Predators will likely have both Mike Fisher and Craig Smith up front for Game One as well. With Fisher, Smith, Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen all sidelined, Nashville wrapped up the Western Conference final against Anaheim with four of its top nine forwards on the shelf.
Hornqvist's potential return might mean a healthy scratch for Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel, who is tied for the team lead in playoff goals with nine but hasn't scored for eight straight games. Guentzel skated in and out of the fourth line at practice Sunday.
His 16 points are five shy of the NHL rookie record for a single playoff year of 21, set by Minnesota’s Dino Ciccarelli in 1981 and matched by Philadelphia’s Ville Leino in 2010.
Fisher is the only Nashville player with Cup final experience. He played all five games for Ottawa in 2007 against Anaheim.
The Penguins, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary, are the first team in the expansion era to make consecutive Cup Final appearances on three separate occasions (also 1991-92 and 2008-09). This is Pittsburgh’s sixth trip since 1991, tied with Detroit for the most in that span.
In their first 17 seasons, the Predators won just three of 12 playoff series. They won three this spring alone to get to this point.
Seven players in the series were picked in the 2012 NHL Draft at PPG Paints Arena: the Penguins’ Derrick Pouliot (8th overall), Olli Maatta (22nd), Oskar Sundqvist (81st) and Matt Murray (83rd), and the Predators’ Filip Forsberg (11th by Washington), Pontus Aberg (37th) and Colton Sissons (50th).