Pekka Rinne is quick to acknowledge that the final 36 games of the season was not enough time to establish himself as bona fide No. 1 goalie in the NHL — regardless of how well he played.
It is clear to anyone who watched the 26-year-old’s performance for the Nashville Predators following the All-Star break, however, that he has established a firm foundation from which to build toward that goal.
Now he’s doing the same thing for his native Finland as he looks to position himself as a candidate for Olympic rosters next year and in the future.
“When you have a good year and you kind of establish yourself, you start to think about those things,” Rinne said before he left for the 2009 IIHF World Championships, which commence with the medal round Wednesday. “One of the biggest goals I have someday is to play for Team Finland in the Olympics. That would be a great honor.”
In his first time as a member of his country’s national team, Rinne had four victories in five appearances with eight goals allowed and one shutout as Finland went 5-1 in the preliminary round of the World Championships. He made 29 saves Monday as Finland capped pool play with a 4-3 upset of Canada in a shootout.
Rinne and Finland face the United States in a quarterfinal matchup Wednesday.
For a country rich in goaltending (see Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff, Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen and Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom) it’s not clear how much impact the current tournament will have when it comes time to select the roster for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Not so when it comes to the Predators, who nearly squeezed into the playoffs thanks, in no small part, to the 6-foot-5 Rinne. In his first full NHL season he recorded 22 of Nashville’s final 23 victories and set a franchise rookie record with 29 wins. He finished among the league’s top 10 in goals-against average (2.38), save percentage (.917) and shutouts (seven).
“I think you go in with your eyes open, but based on how we ended I would probably say that (Rinne) would be the No. 1 right now based on this year,” Coach Barry Trotz said last month. “…That could change next year, (but) based on how we ended, that would be how you have to start going forward.”
It will be the fourth straight year the Predators go to training camp with a different name at the top of the goaltending depth chart.
In 2007, franchise officials were confident enough in Chris Mason that they traded Tomas Vokoun to Florida. When Mason struggled, Dan Ellis emerged as the best option and convinced management to trade Mason to St. Louis during the off-season. Ellis failed to hold the position last season, and following the All-Star break the coaches turned to Rinne.
Nashville went 20-11-5 down the stretch and finished three points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot.
“I just knew that at the beginning of the season Dan was the No. 1 goalie,” Rinne said. “My goal was just to push him every day. I tried to challenge him. …Eventually it just came down to — after the All-Star break — I was just playing more games and as a team we had been playing really well down the stretch.
“… I don’t feel like I’m the reason. As a team we were really good.”
Unlike the previous two off-seasons, this time the team has no plans to move Ellis and pin its hopes exclusively on Rinne, originally an eighth-round pick (258th overall) in the 2004 draft.
“(Ellis) is a battler and a good goaltender,” Trotz said. “He could fight for that back.”
He’ll have to fight an uphill battle to get there.
“I felt like I had a pretty good year,” Rinne said. “I’m just really looking forward already for the next year. It’s going to be me and Dan in the same situation. It’s going to be a good competition between us, and I’m looking forward to that.”
Depending on how it turns out, it could be the last time for the foreseeable future he has to prove himself.