An early-season trade for center Kyle Turris, then the trade deadline acquisition of Ryan Hartman, and the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators seemed in prime position to bring home the Cup this year.
Enter the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets were the second-best team in the NHL this season with 114 points, behind the Preds. They had the best home record in the league, boasted 91-point winger Blake Wheeler, 44-goal scorer Patrick Laine and also sport a Vezina Trophy candidate in net with Connor Hellebuyck.
So, it was no surprise that this series required seven games to decide a winner. What was surprising, however, is the fact that Nashville – the team that preached the importance of home-ice advantage after falling to the Penguins in the Cup Final last year – went 3-4 at Bridgestone Arena this year.
Pekka Rinne, who is the presumed frontrunner for the Vezina Tophy, was pulled just 10:31 into the game for backup Juuse Saros. Rinne made five saves on seven shots, but Preds coach Peter Laviolette did not want to see a 2-0 deficit balloon into more.
“It was just a tough start,” Laviolette said. “There’s not a lot of things you can do if a game is not going your way and it was too early in the game to take a timeout at that point. So, we tried to put the game in a different direction and put a pause in the game.”
Saros was solid in replacing Rinne, stopping 14 of the 16 shots he faced. But ask anyone in the locker room and Pekka Rinne was not to blame for this series loss, even if Rinne himself will tell you different.
“Obviously, I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said. “It’s tough, it’s tough to swallow. I can’t point at anything, you know, no injuries and I felt healthy. Obviously, the biggest moment this season it’s a terrible feeling to let your teammates down and that’s what happened tonight.”
“The critics that want to criticize him, I don’t care if they’ve played in the NHL or not, he’s the backbone of our hockey club,” defenseman P.K. Subban added. “He’s one of the main reasons why we’re here, so for him, could we all have been better today? Yeah, we didn’t do enough.
“I’m sick and tired of people always talking about him, he’s the backbone of this team. He’s the main reason why we’re here. You look at the top goaltenders in the league, it’s him, its (Carey) Price, its (Andrei) Vasilevskiy, its (Connor) Hellebuyck, its these guys. We’re lucky to have one of them.”
Following perhaps the best season of his career, Rinne had an up-and-down postseason. The 6-foot-5 netminder had his share of struggles with Winnipeg in this series. He posted uncharacteristic save percentages of .813, .884 and .769 respectively in Games 1, 3 and 5.
But like everyone in the Preds locker room will tell you, this was a team loss and not a Pekka Rinne loss.
“This wasn’t about Peks,” Laviolette said. “The regular season he had and the fact that we did have home ice, a lot of that has to do with him. It’s not all him, there are some good players in the room as well and they bought into a thought of being successful in the regular season and trying to do our best in the playoffs and it didn’t work out today. He shouldn’t talk about things like that on his own, this is on all of us.”
“I’m so proud of this team,” Rinne added. “It’s like a family. It wasn’t a fluke that we won the Presidents’ Trophy. We had such a good season. It’s hard to wrap it together at this kind of moment, but I love this team.”