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Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, of Finland, makes a save during the first period of game 2 of an NHL Western Conference semi-final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, April 30, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, of Finland, makes a save during the first period of game 2 of an NHL Western Conference semi-final Stanley Cup playoff hockey series action against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, April 30, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Roy MacGregor

The Save by Rinne enters Predators' lore Add to ...

If the impossible were actually to happen - a team whose top scorer managed barely 50 points in the regular season going all the way to the Stanley Cup final - they will say it was all about goaltending.

And if the Cup is won, they will talk about The Save.

For Pekka Rinne, it came Saturday night in Vancouver at the 17:46 mark of the first overtime period. The score is tied 1-1 with Rinne's Nashville Predators already down one game to none in their series with the Vancouver Canucks, the best team in the entire NHL in the regular season and a team with five players with 50 or more points.

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Daniel Sedin, whose 104 points were worth the Art Ross Trophy as the most dangerous scorer, has the puck and can easily shoot. Rinne, the Predators goaltender, has to expect this and is positioned to handle it. Instead, Sedin flips a perfect pass cross-ice to Kevin Bieksa, who is both all alone and faced with an open net. Rinne knows he is late, so he leaps - more like a shortstop than a goaltender - and the sure goal is magically lost. Instead of being down two games to none, the series is split when Nashville scores in the second overtime. Instead of enjoying momentum, the Canucks are now chasing it as they head into Tuesday's Game 3.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz watched The Save on video several times Sunday during the four-and-a-half-hour charter flight to Nashville. "It was even better in real life, trust me," Trotz said. "In video it was almost like when they do NFL films and you want to watch it in slow motion and put some music to it, because it was that nice."

"I don't know what to say," Rinne said with a laugh Monday when asked time and time again about his game-changing moment. "I was fortunate that I was able to stop the puck. It was just desperation. Sedin made a nice play to Bieksa, a really nice pass, and Bieksa got it up pretty quick and I was late coming across, but I got my stick and my blocker over there."

While it takes a highlight like that to alert much of the hockey world to such a talent, Rinne has quietly risen to become one of the league's premier netminders - a reality confirmed recently when he was named, along with Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Boston's Tim Thomas, as a finalist for the 2010-11 Vézina Trophy. Some even thought he should have been also a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player. That he is Nashville's is simply beyond question.

It is a remarkable tale for a 28-year-old Finn who was drafted 258th overall in 2004. He was regarded as a potential backup goaltender, steady but not spectacular. He backed up Niklas Backstrom while playing in the Finnish elite league, was sent by Nashville to the Milwaukee Admirals to back up the minor-league affiliate's regular goaltender, but soon stole the starting job for himself. In 2008 he was brought up to back up Dan Ellis, and soon had that starter's job as well. He has never looked back.

Rinne is the classic modern goaltender design - skinny and very tall (6 foot 5), versus the short and often squat of past eras - and plays a hybrid that is partly his two goaltending heroes, Czech great Dominik Hasek and Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames, partly his own invention on the fly.

"Pekka is definitely the best goaltender I have ever played with, no question," Nashville forward Mike Fisher says. "He's been our MVP. He's the reason we got where we are."

Fisher and other teammates go on about Rinne's remarkable calm, seemingly never flustered. "He's pretty even keel," Fisher says. "He's just relaxed in there, calm and cool. He just does his thing - and we're kind of getting used to it."

Rinne is one of those goaltenders who believe that the playoffs are their time, that the game is actually easier to play when your teammates are willing to make whatever sacrifice that is required to help you out.

"You almost feel like you just need to make the first save," Rinne says. "There's so much desperation on the ice, so much emotion. In the regular season you sometimes get rattled by goals, or you get rattled by stuff when you shouldn't get rattled, but in playoffs you just live in the moment."

That moment includes going up against Luongo, an established elite goaltender. The way this second-round series has gone, it has been more a contest between the two who keep pucks out than those who put them in.

"Any time I play I want to be better than the other guy at the other end," Rinne says. "You know that he's not going to give up too many goals. You know you have to bring your best game out there … because he's not going to give up anything for free."

The humility never stops. Luongo is a great player. His defence saves him time and time again. The forwards come back. He gets "lucky," as when he dived almost blindly knowing that Bieksa had that open net.

He shows off his highly decorative mask, the work of Swedish artist David Gunnarson. There is humour in it - a Band-Aid on one side, a long zipper of stitches on another. And there is great pride as well. The flag of Finland painted on the back and, tucked into a corner, a small circle with a date and the word "Vaari." It stands for his grandfather, Pentti Rinne, who passed away three years ago.

He must have been a big fan of yours, someone says.

He shakes his head. No.

"I was a big fan of his."

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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