NASHVILLE—Pekka Rinne glanced over his shoulder as he stripped off his goalie gear.
“Guess you guys don’t have any choice, huh?” he quipped to the media horde in the otherwise empty Nashville dressing room.
There was a pause. Then a lighthearted,”Guess you don’t either.” A laugh. “No, that’s true,” chuckled Rinne.
That he knew exactly what the questions would be, all referring back to one of the worst nights of his career as a professional goalie, was the subtext to the friendly back-and-forth.
You remember, don’t you? He’ll never forget. With less than 11 minutes elapsed in Game 7 of Nashville’s second round series with Winnipeg last May, Rinne had given up two goals and found himself out of the game and stapled to the bench. Pulled earlier in a Game 7 than any goalie in NHL history, and his team was eliminated.
That he won the Vezina Trophy as the game’s best netminder a month later only helped a little. Then came this fall, and in training camp, Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette made it clear that 23-year-old backup Juuse Saros was going to make more than the 26 appearances he made last season.
“This is going to happen this year,” said Laviolette. “Juuse is a great goalie. He’s going to play.”
Not easy for a proud veteran like Rinne to take. Even tougher in a contract year. Saros started the second game of the season and won, and then in Nashville’s home opener on Tuesday, Rinne was outplayed by Calgary’s Mike Smith and lost.
Which set the stage nicely for Thursday’s first meeting with the Jets this season. Rinne got the net, although you certainly wondered if Saros might.
And the big Finn responded in the best possible way.
His 28-save shutout over the suddenly punchless Jets won’t erase the memories of that Game 7, but it gets this season rolling in the proper fashion. Winnipeg took way too many penalties in the meat of the game, giving Rinne almost a full period without any shots. But he started with a nice save on Dustin Byfuglien and ended it by stoning Jets captain Blake Wheeler on a shorthanded breakaway, so the overall result was more than satisfactory.
“After losing the first home game, uh, this was a nice response by all of us,” said Rinne. “It’s Winnipeg. We just lost to them in playoffs. So for sure you could sense there was a lot of emotion on the ice.”
Being a top-notch goalie requires a short memory, the saying goes, and Rinne tried to make his listeners believe the last thing on his mind on this night was his Game 7 meltdown.
“No. No. It’s a new season,” he said. “Any time you get a chance to play one of the top teams you want to play really well. I’m happy right now after a good game, a good win.”
Fair enough. The questions were a lot harder on the Winnipeg side of the ledger after this one, anyway.
Offensively, the Jets seem a bit lost at the moment. All seemed fine after popping five past Jake Allen in the season opening win over St. Louis. Since then, however, Winnipeg has scored just three goals in three games, two of them losses.
The top line of Mark Scheifele, Wheeler and Kyle Connor is operating fairly well. Connor has three goals, and Scheifele and Wheeler get chances every game. The second line, or at least, the line Paul Maurice likes to get out second, is solid. That’s Adam Lowry between Brendan Tanev and Andrew Copp, a disturber unit that contributes the odd goal.
It’s the next group – Bryan Little, Nik Ehlers and Patrik Laine – that seems completely lost at the moment. Ehlers had 29 goals last season and Laine had 44, but it’s hard to say right now which one seems less likely to score. Ehlers is buzzing all over the ice to no appreciable effect, while Laine’s one-timers are rare and seem to be launched further and further from the net.
It’s seems clear the Winnipeg offence will come around eventually. It sure didn’t help on Thursday night that a slew of penalties – two in the second half of the first, five in the second – knocked the line rotation way out of whack and kept many of the offensive players sitting on the bench watching.
The first 10 minutes of the game were played at a blazing speed with few whistles and good chances for both clubs. The Jets had the best of those chances.
“I thought the first period was the fastest hockey this year,” said Rinne. “It was back and forth.”
An error by Winnipeg defenceman Ben Chiarot early in the second period, a cross-ice pass at the Nashville blueline he had no business making, created a break for Preds forward Ryan Hartman with Byfuglien in hot pursuit. Just as Byfuglien made a reach for the puck, Hartman moved it to his inside shoulder, then flipped a nice backhand over the right pad of Connor Hellebuyck.
Then came the penalties, one by one. Wheeler for dropping his gloves when no Predator player did. Ehlers with a dumb interference penalty in front of the Nashville net. Jacob Trouba for slashing, which set off a big scrum and created two fights, Ehlers with Colton Sissons, and Wheeler with Mattias Ekholm.
Then Byfuglien took a roughing penalty, creating a brief five-on-three power play. Josh Morrissey went off for slashing, and Tyler Myers took a 10-minute misconduct for sarcastically applauding the officiating crew.
The Preds couldn’t score on any of those opportunities. But it drained the Jets, who managed only two shots on Rinne in the middle period. Overall, the Jets gave up nine power plays, and played 16:07 of the game shorthanded.
At 7:58 of the third, the Jets fell behind by two. A Byfuglien turnover created what turned out to be a four-on-three break for Nashville. Roman Josi took a feed right in the slot and had all kinds of time to put it on a tee and wire it past Hellebuyck to make it 2-0 for the home side.
A pretty backhand goal by Johansen finished off the Jets with 5:18 to play, another goal that was the result of a botched Winnipeg play.
So the much anticipated matchup between the two Western conference contenders turned out to be fairly one-sided, although neither team would say they delivered their best game. The Preds moved to 3-1 on the season, the Jets fell to 2-2 with questions about offence and team discipline. At least Winnipeg has six straight home games coming up over a 10-day period, which should allow Maurice to hunker down and get his team playing more consistently.
Both Nashville and Winnipeg brought back essentially the same teams from last year. The greater use of Saros is likely to be the biggest Predator move, although the speculation has already started that highly-touted defence prospect Dante Fabbro will leave Boston University at the end of that school’s hockey schedule and join the Predators for the end of the season.
“We lost Game 7 (to Winnipeg) but it was very even,” said Preds GM David Poile. “After the season, when I talked to everybody, they wanted to get another chance with that team. A lot of players felt that way, particularly the leadership group.”
Austin Watson, meanwhile, continues to be missing from the Nashville lineup after being suspended during training camp by the league after pleading no contest to a domestic assault charge. That suspension was reduced by an arbitrator to 18 games from 27 on Thursday, and Watson will now be eligible to return Nov. 15.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, lost veterans like Paul Stastny, Steve Mason and Toby Enstrom after last season, and has gotten quite a bit younger by trying integrate youngsters like Jack Roslovic, Brendan Lemieux and Kristian Vesalainen into the lineup. Forward Nic Petan, who left the team in training camp after the sudden death of his father, is expected back next week.
Now, both the Jets and Predators are looking to take another step. Nashville made the Stanley Cup final in 2017, losing to Pittsburgh, and lost in the second round last year, a sobering result. The Jets made it to the Final Four last spring and now hopes are high in Manitoba they will go even further this spring.
They were the two best teams in the west last year during the regular season. This season, Vegas, the defending conference champ, is off to a lousy start, while Anaheim and Colorado have been quick out of the gate and San Jose, 2-2-1 so far, should be stronger with the addition of Erik Karlsson.
The Jets and Preds should be as good as anybody in the west. Right now, Nashville looks like it has its act together more than Winnipeg.