Protecting Pekka not a priority as Predators pursue playoff spot

Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 10:22pm
032913 Preds Pekka topper.jpg
(Frederick Breedon for SouthComm)


Rest is not necessarily restful.

If the idea was to give goalie Pekka Rinne a break, pulling him from the net on consecutive nights of a recent five-game road trip did not get it done.

Rinne played 26 minutes at Vancouver on March 14 and just eight the next night at Calgary. Both times the Predators fell behind early so Chris Mason entered to save wear and tear on the team’s top netminder. At least that was the theory.

“The biggest part is you always get ready for the game,” Rinne said. “It takes the whole day. I start preparing for a game the night before and it’s a whole process. It takes a huge amount of energy out of you.

“When you get pulled it doesn’t make it any easier. A lot of times you get a little frustrated and you want get back out there and show everybody that you can do a better job.”

Opportunity is not an issue for the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist.

Through Sunday, he leads the league with 33 games played and is one of six NHL goalies who had appeared in 30 or more games this season. He also leads the league in minutes played and 10th in shots against.

With 13 games remaining, the issue of overuse and whether or not Rinne will be useful in the playoffs — should Nashville make it, that is — is difficult to ignore given that in recent weeks it has been impossible for coaches to imagine starting a game with him on the bench.

“Absolutely there’s days that you don’t feel at your best, but it’s a great challenge,” Rinne said. “You try to learn to handle it because mostly it’s mental. Being a goalie, if you’re mentally sharp and in a game … the whole schedule and all, it’s not as physically demanding as it is mentally demanding.

“Sometimes it is hard to stay fresh given the schedule.”

The schedule is one thing. The standings are another, and they take precedent.

When Nashville endured nine regulation losses (there also was one overtime defeat) in a 13-game span beginning Feb. 22, it dropped out of the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Currently is at the bottom of the Central Division but is just two points behind Columbus, which is eighth in the conference.

That deepened the need for the Predators to take their best shot every night, and that meant sticking with Rinne even on back-to-back nights, as was the case March 8 and 9 against Edmonton and Minnesota, respectively.

“At the start of the season we tried to evaluate it and say, ‘Where do we think Mason is going to play? What are we going to do?’ ” associate coach Peter Horachek said. “All that stuff goes out the window as you go along. We’re on the road, we lose a few games and we’re going back with Pekks. He’s one of our studs, a great goalie and a great guy. You’re just going to play it along.”

Mason was signed as a free agent this offseason because franchise officials were confident he could provide consistent, quality relief for Rinne. In two previous stints with Nashville he either split time with, or served as the backup to Tomas Vokoun and Dan Ellis.

Three times he appeared in more than 20 games for the Predators (2005-06 through 2007-08) and all three times they made the postseason.

“If I ever do play, they give me a heads-up the night before and that’s fine,” Mason said. “They know I know the situation, so it’s not like they have to keep coming over and coddling me or worrying about me.”

So they continue to turn to Rinne, and they are not unique in that regard.

Currently four of the NHL’s top six goalies in games played were on teams outside of the top eight in their respective conferences. That included Nashville, which was ninth in the West.

In their attempt to get back into the thick of the playoff race, the Predators have started Rinne in 24 of their last 25 games. Mason’s last start was Feb. 18 in Colorado, and he ultimately was pulled from that one — Rinne took his place — after he allowed six goals in 33 minutes.

“This is a season where you’re in a situation where every game is the most important game of the year,” Mason said. “Obviously, I’d like to probably play a couple more games, but I had no plan or expectations really. I knew this season was going to be do-or-die at this point.”

Then again, there seems to be little point in trying to save Rinne if he has no interest in saving himself.

Teammates and coaches chuckle at the notion that he ever would ask to sit out a game. Even his presence at practice and his approach in those workouts are non-negotiable.

“He’s competitive, for sure,” captain Shea Weber said. “You watch him in practice and he’s trying to stop every rebound and every second chance. He doesn’t give up on a play and he doesn’t like to get scored on at any point. … We know what to expect. He wants to play every night. He’s the type of guy that can play every night.”

Last season Rinne tied a franchise record when he played 73 games. His goals-against average in the postseason (2.07) actually was better than during the regular season (2.39) as was his save percentage (.929, up from .923).

His longest stretch of consecutive appearances, though, was 13 games — the first 13 of the season. Plus, that was a traditional 82-game schedule, which featured fewer contests per week and the All-Star Game, which gave many players one week off in late January.

“There’s not even sense saying, ‘Why don’t you stay off today?’ ” Horachek said. “He just won’t do it. If you say to him, ‘Do you want to play all the games?’ He’d say, ‘OK.’ He won’t ask for [a break]. You have to decide where he is, his energy level, and [goaltender coach] Mitch [Korn] does a great job in dealing with him and talking to him and seeing where he is and where his head is, if he’s in a good place or not.

“With that, you try to see if we can give him some rest here and there.”

Nashville’s remaining schedule includes two sets of back-to-back games, the first of which is Monday at Chicago (7:30 p.m., SportSouth) and Tuesday at home against Colorado. That set starts a stretch of five games in seven days.

Travel, however, will be at a minimum, which decreases the potential for fatigue. Eight of the 13 games in April are at home and the only road trips before April 25 are to Chicago (three of them).

The best guess as to how many of those games Rinne will play, of course, is as many as possible.

“I don’t really look at the schedule too far ahead,” he said. “I don’t really worry about what kind of schedule we have ahead of us. I try to just go one game at a time.

“I don’t think you ever put any numbers on it. I try to not take anything for granted and try to stay sharp. The best part is when you play. You always want to play.”


3 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 3/31/13 at 10:27

A 48 game schedule is just right for ice hockey.

By: courier37027 on 4/1/13 at 10:42

Each home stand is "do or die". Each road trip is "do or die", as radio sports talk hosts would have us believe for the last two dozen games. Sheesh.

By: 4gold on 4/2/13 at 7:11

Will the Preds ever win a shoot out with no stick skills on the team. NO ONE CAN WIN A ONE ON ONE BATTLE WITH OPPOSING GOALIES. They lose EVERY shootout.

Go Dores, Preds, Titans! Go Nashville a great place to live!