Pekka Rinne is a big reason the Predators are about to play their first June game in franchise history. Nashville has gradually developed into the very model of a young franchise, playing consistently solid hockey while also growing a fan base despite a non-traditional hockey market, and Rinne has been a steady presence for most of that process. Selected in the 8th round of the 2004 draft, he became a regular in 2008-09, and helped lead his team to at least 100 points in two of the next four seasons.
Many of the key players who contributed to the team's growth over the past decade are gone now -- guys like Shea Weber, Patric Hornqvist, and Ryan Suter who were either traded away or left via free agency. But Rinne remains a bridge to an earlier era of Predators hockey, a player who helped the franchise take a huge step forward this year.
So given what he's meant to the franchise, it was hard to watch Rinne skate to the bench after being pulled during the Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-1 victory in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night. Rinne's waited his entire career for this moment, but he has hardly risen to the occasion. He's allowed soft goals in each of the first two games of the series, and while not every Pittsburgh goal is his fault (obviously), he's allowed 8 of them on 36 shots, a terrible .778 save percentage.
Two nights after the Predators dominated the Penguins for much of Game 1 only to blow it in the final minutes, in Game 2 the Preds skated with Pittsburgh for two periods before falling apart early in the third.
The Penguins scored three times in the first 3:28 of that period, and again, not all of that is on Rinne. He's not the reason Pittsburgh was allowed to break in on odd-man rushes, or enter the Nashville zone cleanly. But the Evgeni Malkin goal on a rush up ice ended Rinne's night nevertheless.
Even with that burst of Pittsburgh offense in the early part of the third period, Nashville still outshot the Penguins on the night. Here's a weird stat for a weird Stanley Cup Final: In Game 2, the Penguins won their sixth game of the postseason in which they were outshot by 10 or more. Or to put it another way, in nearly half their victories so far in these playoffs, they've been outshot by double digits. They've been thriving in such circumstances, in fact: The Pens are 6-1 in when outshot by at least 10 in these playoffs, including wins in the first two games of the Final. That's not typically a blueprint for success, but in the small-sample environment of postseason hockey, an opportunistic team with as much talent as Pittsburgh can apparently survive playing that way.
In Game 2, the Penguins got great goaltending from Matt Murray and an excellent game from rookie Jake Guentzel, and so even though the Predators have been mostly fine for five of the six periods in this series, they'll still trail two games to none when the series shifts to Nashville on Saturday night. It's not like the Predators are being completely outplayed. But there's no time for moral victories now.
This series so far has been more interesting than good, between the Penguins comically long shot drought in Game 1, the disallowed goals in both games, the Game 2 fight/hug between P.K. Subban and Evgeni Malkin, some questionable officiating, and at least one catfish smuggled into enemy territory. But Rinne's play in the biggest games of his career has been a major storyline, too, for all the wrong reasons.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette didn't explicitly commit to playing Rinne in Game 3 during his postgame press conference, but he also didn't place all the blame on his goalie. Here's Laviolette's answer to a question about Rinne's career-long struggles again the Penguins, and whether he has confidence in his goalie going into the next game:
"Pekka has been terrific through this entire playoffs. Like I said, I think there's things we can do better. All three goals in the third period, we could have done something better. We're leaving them odd man numbered rushes. I believe all of them were odd, three-on-twos and two-on-ones makes it more difficult."
And here is Laviolette later, in response to a point-blank question about whether Rinne would start Game 3:
"Pekka has been excellent for us all year long, like I said. There's things that we could have done. All three goals in the third period were odd-man rushes."
That's actually a fairly good, if vague, summation of Nashville's first two games. The Predators can be pleased with a lot of aspects of their game, but they don't have much room for error now. And if they don't make the adjustments they need to make -- or do the things they could be doing, to use Laviolette's phrasing -- then they could be looking at a short series against a defending champion hungry to repeat.