When Chris Mason was signed last July to be the team’s backup goaltender, the Predators hoped he would be able to give Pekka Rinne a few extra nights off throughout the season. Of course, that’s always the ideal plan in the offseason.
This season has been different in the sense that it’s a compact 48-game fit into a shorter time period than usual. Since there are at least three, sometimes four games a week teams have been forced to continue business as usual without as many practices in between games.
Some believed this condensed schedule would open up more playing time for backup goalies – or in this case, more time for Mason to relieve Rinne. That hasn’t been the case.
Tuesday was Rinne’s 23rd start of the season, tied for second in the NHL behind Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov. Rinne has appeared in 24 of the Preds’ 26 games, which would be a 75-game pace in a normal 82-game season. He played in 73 games a season ago.
Rinne has fit in those 24 games in a span of 52 days – one game every 2.1 days. Last season, Rinne played in 73 regular-season games in a 183-day span – one game every 2.5 days. Additionally, he has started on back-to-back nights three times (out of 26 games thus far) this season, more often than the six in 2011-12 (out of 82 games).
Do the fewer number of games make Rinne more capable to get through the season without being affected physically? Are the Predators forced to start him more than they’d like because of their place in the standings? Probably a combination of both.
“It is a different kind of year; you notice the schedule because there’s not much time to practice. But I feel good physically,” Rinne said. “You just try to save as much energy as you can and bring everything you’ve got to the game.”
Predators goaltenders coach Mitch Korn doesn’t worry about over-working his starting goaltender.
“I don’t worry about that at all. We’ve managed his ice pretty well. Over the last couple of years, everybody has done a good job ensuring that he has energy and that he’s ready to play. As long as everybody is diligent in him getting his rest, managing his ice, I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
“If he doesn’t feel well or feels fatigued, he wouldn’t play. But he feels good. We take each day as it comes. I’m a planner, but it’s unrealistic to plan those kinds of things.”
Rinne has shown thus far that he hasn’t been fazed by the compact schedule. His 10-8-5 record may not stand out, but it’s not indicative of how the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist has played this season. His 2.00 goals-against average is fifth-best in the NHL, while his .924 save percentage is sixth-best. Also, he leads the league with five shutouts.
With those numbers, Rinne should be on track to contend for the Vezina once again.
“To me he’s the best goaltender in the league and he’s showing it,” said Mike Fisher, who believes Rinne should be in consideration for the Hart Trophy as well. “He’s our best player on most nights and keeps us in every game and we’ve won a few with one or two goals because of him.”
Going into Thursday’s game in 10th place in the middle of the Western Conference logjam, you can bet the Predators will be leaning on Rinne down the stretch as much as ever before. And that’s fine with Rinne, as he’s shown in the past that he’s most successful late in the season with a playoff berth at stake.
Back in the 2010-11 season, with the Predators’ backs against the wall, Rinne posted a 9-3-2 record and 1.91 GAA in the month of March to vault the team into the playoffs. Following the Olympic break in 2010, Rinne went 12-4-1 with a 1.96 GAA to push the team into postseason play.
“I enjoy playing a lot. Every game I want to be back there,” he said. “Hopefully I can build up some consistency and put together some good games in a row.”