Preds ready for final playoff push with Rinne in net

Predators netminder Pekka Rinne (missed four-plus months to hip infection) likely won't incur back-to-back starts until March 10-11 (@ Ottawa, @ Buffalo).

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With the excitement around the news on Tuesday that goalie Pekka Rinne would play his first game for the Nashville Predators since Oct. 22, coach Barry Trotz did not want to get too far ahead of himself.

It will be one week — at Ottawa, at Buffalo (March 10-11) — before the Predators encounter back-to-back games. With Nashville in a desperate fight to make the playoffs (six points out of the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference), is Rinne ready for that kind of load?

"We’ll have to see that," Trotz said. "We’ll have to see, ‘A,’ where the games are for us and what kind of game presented itself maybe the first game versus maybe the second game."

With 21 games remaining and the Predators involved in a five-team race to make the playoffs, every win, every game, will count. It’s not inconceivable that Rinne would play the rest of the games. In 2011-12, the last 82-game regular season, he ranked second overall in minutes played at 4,168:52 (73 games).

Incidentally, Rinne led the league in wins that season.

A noted workhorse, Rinne is certainly capable of playing 21 straight. But this situation is different. As goalie coach Mitch Korn put it on Tuesday, "We’re catching a moving train," while noting Rinne’s good conditioning.

Over the weekend, Rinne played two games on a conditioning assignment with Milwaukee (American Hockey League), with Korn observing him up close. Rinne won both outings, stopping 33 of 35 total shots.

"I wasn’t tested that bad," he said. "It was fairly — from a goalie’s standpoint — it was fairly easy games. I can’t really say it was a heavy workload, but in those two games it felt good. It’s going to be interesting tonight to see how it goes."

Did he get tired? "No," said Rinne, who is generally prone to longer responses.

And so it goes. Trotz said last week the Predators cannot rely on Rinne to be their savior. While that is true, Rinne generally steals the Predators games here and there.

His absence especially hindered the Predators in extra time. Rinne’s career record in shootouts is 23-21. This season, Nashville has three wins in overtime and shootouts combined, the fewest in the NHL.

The Preds are 1-7 in shootouts. Only the New Jersey Devils (0-8) are worse.

Even with only the nine games played, Rinne was allowing half a goal less (2.31 goals-against average to 2.85) than Carter Hutton, who has played the most games of any Predators goalie this season (32). In discussing the statistical differences between the two, Korn thought Rinne’s impact would have been most felt in those games that extended past regulation.

Before falling victim to a hip infection back in October, Rinne was just starting to get his legs underneath him. Coming off his first hip surgery last spring, Rinne didn’t play an entire 60-minute exhibition game.

Without the benefit of a 20-day preseason, Korn points out that Rinne will not be able to ramp up slowly. He’ll be thrown into the fire against the Pittsburgh Penguins (Tuesday), the Eastern Conference’s top team, and then against the St. Louis Blues (Thursday), tied for the second-most points in the NHL.

Rinne isn’t into making excuses for what lies ahead.

"When you play the game, you want to be at your best," he said. "I’m not going to allow myself to give up a soft one because I’ve missed a lot of time. But at the same time, obviously, I understand that it’s been a long time but, nonetheless, I expect myself always bring my best game."