NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne is a friendly, polite man off the ice. Slipping the puck past him is one of the few ways to anger the 6-5 Finn.
Pucks bouncing past him on the NHL’s biggest stage infuriate him. Rinne chopped his stick against a goalpost twice after giving up a fifth and final goal a year ago, when Nashville was ousted from the playoffs.
That was only Game 7 in the second round.
Now Rinne goes into the biggest game of his career Sunday night needing yet another home victory to force the defending champs and the Stanley Cup Final to a deciding seventh game back in Pittsburgh. And Rinne spent the last 40 minutes stewing on the bench as the Penguins finished off a 6-0 rout Thursday night in easily Nashville’s worst playoff loss.
“You have those thoughts of why [is] the puck getting deflected in off our guys,” Rinne said Saturday. “You try to work so hard that the luck is also on your side. When bounces aren’t going your way, sometimes you question, have second thoughts in your head, but that’s life.”
Rinne, who’s so competitive that he doesn’t like when teammates score on him in practice, is back in Nashville, where he has been nearly unbeatable the last two postseasons at 13-1.
He has a 9-1 record this spring with a 1.44 goals-against average and .949 save percentage in Nashville. Rinne has allowed two or fewer goals in eight of those 10 games and tied Antti Niemi with his 36th playoff win for the most in NHL history by a Finnish-born goalie.
Rinne and the Predators stand between Pittsburgh and a big chunk of history.
The Penguins are trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons in nearly two decades since the Red Wings repeated in 1997 and 1998. One more win gives the Penguins the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup, tying them with the Oilers for sixth all time.
All four of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cups have been clinched on the road, with the Blackhawks the last team to win the Cup on home ice back in 2015.
“Opportunities like this, they don’t come around often, so you want to make the most of them,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.
The Predators haven’t scored in 63 minutes, 23 seconds since Filip Forsberg’s empty-net goal in Game 4. So Rinne will need to be at his best to give Nashville a chance at its first Game 7 and Pittsburgh’s third this postseason.
Rinne understands coach Peter Laviolette was trying to wake up the Predators by pulling him after he allowed three goals on nine shots in the first 20 minutes of Game 5. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel each put up at least two points in that game.
Yet there’s no question that Rinne, who has never won a start in Pittsburgh, will be in net Sunday night.
“Our backs are against the wall, and this is our opportunity, and I think you try to do anything in your power and prepare the best you can for this one,” Rinne said.
The Predators, who might be without defenseman Ryan Ellis, know exactly what they need to do better against Pittsburgh. Part of that is being better in front of Rinne.
“We made mistakes in front of him,” Laviolette said. “So I know there’s things that we can do that can support our goaltender better.”