Mike Fisher still rates as the favorite NHL player among his family and friends in his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario.
His lead over second place has shrunk decidedly in recent weeks, though.
Goalie Pekka Rinne, the player teammates and coaches point to as the single biggest reason for the Nashville Predators’ presence in, and success during, the playoffs, became the transcendent figure of the team’s most successful postseason to date.
“Anyone I talk to back home, they all talk about Pekka,” Fisher said. “People love the way he competes and some of the saves he makes. He’s an exciting guy to watch, which is why so many of the fans in Nashville love him.”
Predators fans have been well aware of Rinne’s competitiveness and dynamic athleticism for years. Almost from the moment he was recalled from Milwaukee for the first time and won in his first career start back in December 2005, his presence has exceeded even his 6-foot-5 frame.
With his performance this postseason, particularly in the conference semifinal series, which included three games in Vancouver against the only Canadian team among the then-eight remaining playoff franchises, his recognition among fans and media throughout the NHL increased exponentially.
Even before he made the last of his 29 saves in the series opener — a 1-0 Canucks victory — a Twitter hash-tag had been created called #thingsinrinnesglove, which was inspired by the array of glove saves and the fact that very few of them resulted in rebounds. Among the responses were ‘sedin twins’ dreams,’ ‘The 2011 Conn Smythe Award,’ ‘(Vancouver general manager) Bob Murray’s sanity’ and a variety of others that involved commentary on politics and entertainment.
“Obviously, you enjoy being in the spotlight a little bit,” Rinne said. “At the same time, it’s good recognition for our team too. It works both ways. If the team is doing well, the individuals are going to get some recognition too.”
It’s not that Rinne was an unknown prior to this month.
The league’s 30 general managers named him a finalist (one of the top three vote-getters) for the 2011 Vezina Trophy, which is given annually to the league’s best goaltender. That came after he finished among the NHL’s top five in goals-against average (2.12), save percentage (.930) and shutouts (six).
Coaches and players who have tried to solve Rinne, particularly down the stretch of the last two seasons, also were well aware of his capabilities. He was the NHL’s third star of the month in both January and March and recorded 22 of the team’s final 23 victories as it surged into the postseason.
Against the Canucks, the highest-scoring team during the regular season, Rinne allowed 13 goals (Vancouver also scored one into an empty net) in six games.
“He’s a good goaltender,” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. “You have to give him credit. I didn’t expect coming in that these would be high-scoring games.”
Now, a much greater number of fans and media have figured it out.
Rinne’s endearing personality and thoughtful approach to interviews have made him a favorite of those with cameras and notepads. Unlike most goalies, he not only talks at length on days between games but also on gamedays, often waiting through three or four waves of reporters before all the questions are answered.
“I think you just enjoy it,” he said. “You kind of learn to expect that when you play against a team like Vancouver.”