Rinne brings a regular-season mindset to his first NHL playoffs

Monday, April 19, 2010 at 11:03pm

Playoff hockey.

They are two words typically uttered with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Players want the thrill of competing for a championship, yet they understand the physical price they must pay along the way as the games become more challenging and the hitting intensifies in comparison with the 82 contests of the regular season.

Not so for Nashville Predators’ goalie Pekka Rinne.

“Everybody’s always asking me, ‘What are you going to change for the playoffs?’ ” Rinne said. “There’s not too many things I want to change. I think that’s a key.

Maybe he doesn’t know any better. The 27-year-old, who just completed his second full NHL season, never experienced the playoffs at this level before Friday, when the Predators and Chicago Blackhawks opened their best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series.

Then again, perhaps his experience in other leagues and tournaments around the world has taught him all he needs to know.

Rinne came to North America in 2005-06 and promptly helped the Predators’ top minor league affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, reach the American Hockey League championship series. He won 10 of 14 postseason appearances and had three shutouts that season.

That came after he spent two years as the backup goalie for Karpat Oulu, which won back-to-back Finnish league titles in 2004-05.

Last summer he started six of seven games for his native Finland in his first appearance at the World Championships.

“A guy like Pekka hasn’t played in an NHL playoff game [before this season], but he’s been a big reason they’ve gone deep in Milwaukee a couple years and [nearly] won a championship,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s a big reason [Finland] went deep in the World Championships. So he’s had a lot of experience.”

Through the first five days of the postseason, Rinne’s 1.53 goals-against average and his .949 save percentage both were second in the league. Of course, the only person better in both categories was Chicago’s Antti Niemi, who split the opening two games of the series with Rinne and who is – like Rinne – a playoff novice.

Game 3 of the series is 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena (Fox Sports-Tennessee).

Of course, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that playoff experience is not a prerequisite for a goalie who performs well in the postseason.

Ron Hextall was a 22-year-old rookie with Philadelphia in 1986-87 when he went 15-11 in goal and earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player during a playoff run that ended with a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s first experience in the NHL playoffs came in 2002-03 when he was 25. Like Hextall, he took his team to the finals and earned the Conn Smythe on the strength of a 15-6 record and a 1.62 goals-against average.

Given that Nashville is the only Western Conference playoff team that did not score more goals than it allowed during the regular season (it was 225 for and against), the general perception is that the Predators will need a similar type of performance from Rinne if they are to advance beyond the first round.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Rinne said. “When you’re a goalie, you play the game and you learn to get used to the pressure. It’s a constant thing. But you also enjoy it. I’m just excited.”