Predators very much alive after Rinne stymies Penguins

Pekka Rinne made 23 saves and Frederick Gaudreau scored the game-winner to get the Predators a 4-1 win and even their series against the Penguins at two games apiece.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Four days ago, Pekka Rinne looked at a group of reporters and asked them why they were all acting “like somebody died.”

Today the Nashville Predators are very much alive in their quest for a Stanley Cup in large part due to the popular Finnish goaltender.

“It’s a rollercoaster,” Rinne said after Monday’s 4-1 victory. “It’s an emotional ride.”

After some twists and turns we are back where we started: With the Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins all square in the championship series, a best-of-three to decide who gets their name carved into the Cup.

It may well be Rinne if he can keep this up. He was riding a low after the opening two games in Pittsburgh – the victim of some bad bounces and poor play while allowing eight goals on 36 shots – and rebounded by stopping 50 of 52 here to even the series.

The Penguins brought their best game of the final in Game 4 and only put one puck behind him. It came on a clear breakaway from the best player in the world and Sidney Crosby made no mistake with a backhand deke reminiscent of the one he used to score in the gold-medal game at the Sochi Olympics.

Otherwise, Rinne was a wall. A diving, sprawling, acrobatic wall.

“The first two games, we did a lot of good things,” said Rinne. “Personally wasn’t really happy with my game. But these two games, they’ve been huge for us. Personally, too, I mean it’s a game of confidence being a goalie.”

He helped the Predators seize an opportunity unlike any other. This bordered on a spectacle, really, the biggest games ever played in a city that has fallen head over heels for its hockey team. And they’ve guaranteed themselves one more home date.

Rinne is considered a local at this point.

He came here from the rural town of Kempele in the northern part of Finland more than a decade ago and signed a seven-year contract extension in 2011 – an act of faith at a time others were leaving the organization.

This is the reward for that. The chance to live out a childhood dream in a place where you’re beloved.

“Oh they love him,” said defenceman Roman Josi. “Every time in the starting lineup when his name gets called up, it’s probably the loudest of the whole game. Yeah, they love him. How can you not love him?

“I mean he’s the best guy you’ll ever meet.”

On the ice, Rinne is basically the opposite of Penguins counterpart Matt Murray. He never received structured goalie coaching as a kid and routinely battles for saves by sliding all over the crease. Murray plays like a man without a pulse.

Whatever works.

The craziest sequence of Game 4 came with Nashville ahead 2-1 and Crosby on his second breakaway of the game. He got off two shots with his backhand before the puck found its way into the crease of a wide open net when Rinne dove back to deny Jake Guentzel’s chance with his right arm.

“Coming back, I just tried to keep (Crosby) on his backhand,” said defenceman Ryan Ellis, who was in the middle of the chaos. “Pek’s did a phenomenal job on the first save, the second, the third, the fourth. I mean I don’t know how many there was.

“Pek’s was one post to the other, on his belly and everywhere. I mean that’s what we needed to get it done.”

Now the Penguins will be getting some tough questions. Mike Sullivan was asked post-game if he would consider replacing Murray with Marc-Andre Fleury. The power play saw another game go by without connecting and their battered blue-line is struggling to clear the defensive zone.

“They’re not perfect by any stretch,” Sullivan said of his defencemen. “But these guys are competing.”

Even still, the Penguins were just a couple glorious chances away from a better result.

Crosby was a menace and scored his first goal in the Stanley Cup final since June 4, 2009. Guentzel had several looks from in close but couldn’t find his 14th goal of these playoffs. Chris Kunitz was stopped on a breakaway.

It was a long way from the start of the series, when Rinne heard a debate about whether Juuse Saros should be in the crease instead. That talk looks foolish now.

“There was at least two times at the net where he had to make the save, then maybe one, two or three more saves after that,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette. “Even when the game was over in the last minute and a half there, he held his left leg out there forever to stop three or four attempts to still try to push it in the net.”

Murray couldn’t really be faulted for the goals against at his end: Calle Jarnkrok scored on a rebound after Olli Maatta and Conor Sheary turned the puck over on a breakout; Frederick Gaudreau got his third of the series – rather incredibly, given that he doesn’t yet have a permanent stall in the Nashville dressing room – on a wraparound that barely crossed the goal-line after some shaky defensive coverage; and Viktor Arvidsson beat him low glove on a breakaway.

Filip Forsberg scored into an empty net from 180 feet away to ice it.

That had Bridgestone Arena bouncing and left a city bracing for the weekend. The Stanley Cup will be in the building for Game 6 here on Sunday night and Rinne’s Predators may have a chance to win it.

Imagine that.

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