Stanley Cup Final: Predators leaning on Pekka Rinne to force Penguins back to Pittsburgh

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Stanley Cup Final: Predators leaning on Pekka Rinne to force Penguins back to Pittsburgh

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pekka Rinne is a friendly, polite man off the ice. Slipping the puck past the Nashville Predators goaltender is one of the few ways to anger the 6-foot-5 Finn.

Pucks bouncing past him on the NHL's biggest stage infuriate him. Rinne chopped his stick against a goalpost not once, but twice after giving up a fifth and final goal a year ago when Nashville was ousted from the playoffs.

That was just Game 7 in the second round.

Now Rinne goes into the biggest game of his career Sunday night needing yet another home victory to force both the defending champs and the Stanley Cup Final to a deciding seventh game back in Pittsburgh. And Rinne spent the past 40 minutes stewing on the bench as the Penguins finished off a 6-0 rout Thursday night in easily Nashville's worst playoff loss.

"You have those thoughts that why (is) the puck getting deflected in off our guys or something like that," Rinne said Saturday. "You try to work so hard that the luck is also on your side. When bounces not going your way, sometimes you question, have second thoughts in your head, but that's life."

The goalie so competitive he doesn't like teammates scoring on him in practice is back in Nashville where he's been nearly unbeatable over the past two postseasons at 13-1.

Rinne has a 9-1 record this spring with a 1.44 goals-against average and .949 save percentage in Nashville. He's allowed two or fewer goals in eight of those 10 games and tied Antti Niemi with his 36th playoff win for the most in NHL history by a Finnish-born goaltender.

Yet the goalie and the Predators stand between Pittsburgh and a big chunk of history.

The Penguins are trying to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons in nearly two decades since Detroit repeated in 1997 and 1998. One more win gives the Penguins the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup, tying them with Edmonton for sixth all-time.

All four of Pittsburgh's Stanley Cups have been clinched on the road with Chicago the last team to win the Cup on home ice back in 2015.

"Opportunities like this, they don't come around often, so you want to make the most of them," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said.

The Predators haven't scored a goal in 63 minutes, 23 seconds since Filip Forsberg's empty-net goal in Game 4. So Rinne will need to be at his best to give Nashville a chance at its first Game 7 and Pittsburgh's third this postseason.

Rinne understands coach Peter Laviolette was trying to wake up the Predators by pulling the veteran after allowing three goals on nine shots in the first 20 minutes of Game 5. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all put up at least two points each in that game.

Yet there's been no question that Rinne, who has never won a start in Pittsburgh, will be in net Sunday night.

"Right now our backs are against the wall, and this is our opportunity and I think you try to do anything in your power and prepare the best you can for this one," Rinne said.

The Predators know exactly what they need to do better against Pittsburgh. Part of that is being better in front of Rinne.

"We made mistakes in front of him," Laviolette said. "So I know there's things that we can do that can support our goaltender better."

Nashville may be without defenseman Ryan Ellis, who didn't finish Thursday night's loss. Ellis was among several Predators who did not take part in an optional practice Saturday. Ellis plays with Roman Josi on Nashville's top defensive pair and is tied for third with 13 points this postseason.

The Penguins skated in Pittsburgh before flying to Nashville. Center Nick Bonino, who has missed three straight games with an injured left foot, did not practice for the Pens.

Pittsburgh couldn't close out Columbus, Washington or Ottawa the first chance the Penguins had in each of their previous three playoff series. Coach Mike Sullivan thinks his Penguins are playing better, harder and smarter over the past two games.

"When these guys play a committed, inspired game the way they do and they execute, then their talent and their instincts are going to take over," Sullivan said. "And when they do that, they're hard to defend."

Having the Stanley Cup in Bridgestone Arena gives the Predators plenty of motivation as well in the first game they've faced elimination this postseason. Nashville went 3-1 in such games last year.

"Our motivation is the Cup," Nashville captain Mike Fisher said. "We want to win it."

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Brian Elliott

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Brian Elliott

Each day this week until July 1, the day free agency begins, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone will profile the five best goalie options for the Flyers on the open market and project their likelihood of signing.

Brian Elliott
Age: 32
Height: 6-2
Weight: 209
Last team: Calgary Flames
2016-17 cap hit: $2.5 million

Scouting report
Drafted in the ninth round (291st overall) of the loaded 2003 draft by the Ottawa Senators, Elliott didn’t find much success in the NHL until he wound up in St. Louis in 2011-12.

Elliott joined Ottawa full time in January of the 2008-09 season and played his way into splitting goaltending duties with Alex Auld. In 2009-10, he was 29-18-4 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. He was traded to Colorado at the 2010-11 trade deadline for Craig Anderson. He played just 12 games for the Avalanche.

After Colorado declined to qualify him, Elliott signed a one-year deal with the Blues in 2011. He shared the net with Jaroslav Halak and ended up having his best season in the league. In 2011-12, Elliott was 23-10-4 with a 1.56 GAA and .922 save percentage.

He was an All-Star in 2011-12, too. He ended up playing four more seasons in St. Louis, but the Blues eventually moved on from him with the emergence of Jake Allen. The Blues traded him to the Flames at the 2016 draft but lasted just one season in Calgary.

Last season, Elliott struggled with the Flames before being relegated to the team’s backup. He eventually did regain the No. 1 job but didn’t do enough to please the Flames’ front office. He was 26-18-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.

Dougherty's projection
Elliott is one of the options on the market that I think would fit well with what the Flyers are looking for, and that is a proven veteran who has shown he can be a part of a tandem.

I know he didn’t pan out in Calgary and missed his opportunity at a big payout, which could very well could be his final chance to get a decent contract. I was a fan of him in St. Louis, especially when paired with Allen and Halak. I think he’s a good tandem goalie.

Financially, I think he’ll be a fit. I don’t see him getting much of a raise from his $2.5 million cap hit he carried on his previous contract. And I don’t think this goalie market is going to drive that price up, either. There aren’t many teams in the market for goalies.

So for what he’ll cost — probably in the $2.5 million range, maybe a little more — Elliott would be a solid option for the Flyers, but he may find more opportunity in Winnipeg, which reportedly is looking for a veteran goalie to pair with Connor Hellebuyck, 24.

I would imagine an Elliott-Michal Neuvirth pair would certainly give enough stability in net for the Flyers to compete next season and creep back into the playoffs.

For the Flyers, Elliott is an attractive option and one they’ll likely reach out to. Whether he comes to Philadelphia is something we’ll find out soon enough.

I still feel Jonathan Bernier is the early favorite but Elliott would make for a good signing.

At the right price, of course.

Hall's projection
Elliott fits the Flyers' plans here.
 
He's a 32-year-old veteran that has backed up and split time in net for much of his nine seasons in the NHL. At this stage of his career, he might not be looking for much more — he would likely be open to a cost-efficient deal in the ballpark of two years, as he's never had a higher average annual value than $2,500,000.
 
Ever since joining the Blues in 2011-12, Elliott has been pretty darn good. His 2.55 goals-against average with the Flames last season was his worst since 2010-11, which shows you his reliability. He also has a relatively clean health history, he's proven to be durable and also owns plenty of experience, including 41 postseason appearances.
 
This just makes a lot of sense for the Flyers and their current state. Elliott helps now and shouldn't block the future.

Paone's projection
The thought of Elliott in net for the Flyers next season makes sense for a few reasons.

First, he fits the mold of what Hextall and his staff are looking for. They want a netminder with some experience who can be trusted to step in and carry stretches work if needed. Elliott has the experience and he's played long stretches during his time in both St. Louis and Calgary. And with Neuvrith's injury history, the Flyers could very well need someone to step in for long stretches. So check that box off.

Second, he'll come at the right price for Hextall and the Flyers' brass after a tough season in Calgary. His season fizzled after the Flames gave him the chance to be the No. 1 guy on a talented team. But the reality is that lowered the price and will likely land Elliott a shorter-term deal, both of which can only pique the Flyers' interest some more. Check both those box off.

Third, Neuvirth would be a clear No. 1 option ahead of Elliott. That's not meant to slight Elliott, but, if you ask me, Neuvirth is the better of the two. I'm not the biggest supporter of full-on platoons because I feel confidence is of the utmost importance for a goalie and it's so much easier to be confident and get in a groove when a goalie doesn't have to constantly look over his shoulder. And that would be the case here as Neuvirth would be the guy in that situation.

Yes, Elliott's best seasons came behind a sturdy St. Louis defense that featured the likes of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, among others. And while he may not be the sexiest option on the market, he is a sensible option for the Flyers.

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Jonathan Bernier

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Jonathan Bernier

Each day this week until July 1, the day free agency begins, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone will profile the five best goalie options for the Flyers on the open market and project their likelihood of signing.

Jonathan Bernier
Age: 28
Height: 6-0
Weight: 184
Last team: Anaheim Ducks
2016-17 cap hit: $4.15 million

Scouting report
After being drafted 11th overall in 2006, Bernier was a highly-touted goaltender coming up in the Los Angeles Kings system and performed well in a backup role for five seasons in L.A.

But with Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, Bernier was blocked from getting a viable opportunity to be a No. 1 with the Kings. In June 2013, they shipped him to Toronto.

Bernier did not capitalize on his opportunity with the Maple Leafs, however. He never established himself as a high-end starting goalie in three seasons despite a strong first year.

In 2013-14, Bernier was 26-19-7 with a 2.68 goals-against average and .923 save percentage with the Leafs but that save percentage continually dropped the next two years.

Toronto decided to cut ties with Bernier after the 2015-16 season and traded him to the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional draft pick. He spent last season backing up John Gibson.

Appearing in 39 games last season for the Ducks, Bernier posted a 21-7-4 record with a 2.50 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and two shutouts.

One note about Bernier: Flyers general manager Ron Hextall was an assistant GM in Los Angeles when the Kings drafted him in 2006, so there is a connection there.

Dougherty's projection
I don’t think Bernier is the best option available for the Flyers but the most likely. Maybe I’m putting too much weight on the Hextall connection here, maybe not. We’ll see.

Bernier fits what the Flyers appear to want in a goalie going forward: a short-term veteran option who can share the net with Michal Neuvirth in a platoon situation.

Hextall isn’t looking for the Flyers’ goalie of the future this summer. He believes he has that in the system already but needs to bide time for Carter Hart and Felix Sandstrom.

But he will be looking for a goalie who he can trust playing around 40 games or more next season and give the team quality in net. In that role, Bernier would be a solid fit.

He hasn’t panned out as projected and we could use him as one example of why we don’t see many goaltenders drafted high in the first round. They’re tough to project.

With that said, Bernier has found success in the past, including last season in Anaheim, in either a platoon or backup situation. He’ll come at a reasonable price, too.

A tandem of Neuvirth-Bernier would not be the worst thing in the world for the Flyers; it wouldn’t be the best, either. I think it would give them enough in net to compete.

If I had to predict which goaltender on the market will be here next season, it is Bernier.

Hall's projection
I see Bernier as one of the least realistic options for the Flyers.
 
The 2006 11th overall pick hasn't quite lived up to the hype, but he still has some cachet, probably too much for the Flyers in this spot.
 
He turns only 29 in August and in a backup role last season, his 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage still ranked in the top 15 among NHL goalies that played 39 games or more.
 
The role and price in which the Flyers will offer shouldn't attract Bernier much. From the sound of Hextall, I expect him to be judicious in adding a goalie. This sounds much more like a stopgap, temporary position than anything future oriented.
 
There's a connection with the Flyers' GM here, but that might be it when it comes to the Bernier scenario.

Paone's projection
I find Bernier to be an intriguing option for the Flyers.

First and foremost, there is plenty of familiarity with Bernier within the Flyers' organization. Hextall and current Flyers goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh were both parts of the Kings' organization when Bernier was drafted in 2006 and worked with him during his development into an NHL goaltender. They not only know the type of player and competitor they'd be getting, they also know the type of person they'd be getting and that plays a role, too.

Bernier had a very strong campaign for the Ducks last season. That certainly makes him an attractive option for the Flyers. He did his best to prove he can be a reliable option again after things soured for him in Toronto. But, hey, a lot of things went sour in Toronto during those times.

But that strong campaign with Anaheim last season will have Bernier wanting opportunity and more of it. With Neuvirth entrenched here, how much opportunity would there actually be for Bernier here? Would the Flyers present the type of opportunity he's looking for after last year's showing with the Ducks? My guess is no. He'll likely want an opportunity to take on much more of a workload.

So while the option is intriguing for many reasons and it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility, I ultimately feel this is an option both he and the Flyers pass on.