The spotlight of national television inside a snow globe-like atmosphere won’t be awaiting the Pittsburgh Penguins in Nashville on Tuesday night, but the Music City has its own reason to be revved up for the Eastern Conference leaders’ visit.
Pekka Rinne returns to the Predators’ net after a 19-week absence hoping to spark Nashville’s flickering playoff hopes as it continues its post-Olympics homestand against the Penguins.
Rinne was in goal for nine of the first 10 games in the Predators’ 5-4-1 start, but he felt pain in his surgically repaired left hip following a loss at Minnesota on Oct. 22. He developed a fever later that night and wound up contracting an E. coli infection in the hip that would cost him the next 4 1/2 months – and may keep Nashville (26-25-10) out of the West’s top eight.
After stopping 33 of 35 shots during a two-game conditioning stint with Milwaukee of the AHL, Rinne is hoping to help his team climb from 12th in the conference back into the wild-card race.
"I’m just really looking forward to getting back to Nashville, getting some ice time and help the guys make the playoffs," Rinne said. "I’m ready to go.
"We’re still hanging close by the No. 8 seed. … We’re going to have to win a majority of the games, but hopefully we’re able to do that and I’m able to help."
The Penguins (40-16-4) won’t have to worry about making the postseason, but they were thoroughly outplayed in a playoff-like atmosphere in their latest game. Pittsburgh allowed 40 shots for just the fourth time this season and came up empty in six power-play chances Saturday, losing 5-1 to Chicago at snowy Soldier Field in the finale of the NHL’s Stadium Series.
”It wouldn’t have mattered if we played this game inside or outside or it was snow or no snow,” coach Dan Bylsma said. ”They were better and more prepared to play, whatever the conditions were.”
The Penguins hold a 14-point cushion atop the Metropolitan Division but have seen their lead over Boston for the East’s No. 1 seed cut to three points, having come out of the Olympics with two losses – one in a shootout.
Pittsburgh will continue its five-game trip by trying to avoid losing four straight for the first time since being swept by the Bruins in the 2013 conference finals. The highest-scoring team in East at 3.13 goals per game, the Penguins have been held to one or none in three of their past five away from home.
Facing a rusty Rinne might allow them to get back on track offensively. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist has allowed nine goals on 61 shots in losing his last two against Pittsburgh, with Sidney Crosby recording two goals and an assist and Evgeni Malkin getting three and an assist.
Malkin had two assists as Pittsburgh chased Marek Mazanec after two periods in a 4-1 home win Nov. 15.
Nashville opened a five-game homestand coming out of the Olympics with a 3-2 win over Tampa Bay on Thursday, scoring three times in four power-play opportunities. But the Predators came up empty in six chances with the man advantage Saturday, falling 3-1 to Winnipeg.
Despite the loss, Nashville outshot the Jets 40-20 two days after holding a 29-16 advantage on the Lightning.
”There’s going to be games where you feel like you get your heart ripped out of your chest and you just have to forget about what happened,” coach Barry Trotz said. ”We played a really good hockey game, but we didn’t win it.”
The Predators are 5-0-1 at home against Pittsburgh since 2000.