How unusual to think that it was back on Oct. 9, the night the Nashville Predators opened the 2010-11 season against the Anaheim Ducks, that goalie Pekka Rinne pulled himself from the contest with a knee injury.
Six months later, it’s clear that Rinne is not going anywhere. His consistent presence and performance between the pipes is considered by most a necessity if the Predators hope to get beyond the Western Conference quarterfinals for the first time.
There’s no doubt he will be the starter when Nashville and Anaheim begin their best-of-seven series 9:30 p.m. (CDT) Wednesday at the Honda Center (SportSouth-Comcast Chs. 26, 286).
That’s in stark contrast to the Ducks, who have three options in net — two of which are less than 100 percent. All indications are that Anaheim will open with former Predator Dan Ellis in net because Jonas Hiller, who started the season-opener, remains sidelined by vertigo, and Ray Emery is less than 100 percent because of a lower body injury.
“They’ve had some goaltending changes,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “Emery’s been injured and Hiller’s been backing up, but Hiller’s still going through a little bit of the vertigo so I think Dan Ellis is going to be the guy who starts the series for sure. … [Ellis] has gone in there and played very well.”
Ellis was named the NHL’s third star for the final week of the regular season after he stopped 66 of 68 shots in back-to-back victories over Los Angeles last Friday and Saturday, the second of which moved the Ducks past the Predators into fourth place in the conference standings and gave them home-ice advantage for the series.
There is plenty of precedent to suggest that a team does not have to rely on one goalie to win a Stanley Cup. The Ducks, in fact, did so in 2007 with contributions from Jean-Sebastien Gigeure (13 wins) and Ilya Bryzgalov (three wins).
Yet it also is worth noting that Anaheim is the only one of this year’s Western Conference’s eight playoff teams that did not have a goalie with more than 30 games during the regular season.
Hiller handled the bulk of the work until he developed the vertigo and was 26-16-3. His only appearance since Feb. 15 was at Nashville on March 24, when he was pulled after he allowed three goals on nine shots. He said earlier this week he still lacks the confidence that he can play at a high level.
Ellis has gone 8-3-1 since he was acquired from Tampa Bay in February. Emery, who came back from nearly a year off due to hip surgery, went 7-2-0.
Rinne ultimately was sidelined twice and missed a total of 12 games with knee issues early in the season. Down the stretch, though, he played 29 of Nashville’s final 30 games and collected 16 of his career-high 33 victories during that stretch.
He ultimately set franchise records with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage (both ranked second in the league), and his six shutouts were one short of his own franchise record.
“There’s probably a game here or a game there where I wasn’t happy with my game, but overall I feel like I’ve been consistent and played pretty well. The team has been consistent even though we’ve gone through some stretches with losing streaks and I feel like we’ve played pretty solid defensively.
“I’m pretty happy. Obviously you’d always like to see more wins, but it’s my job to give my team a chance.”
The Predators never have used more than one goalie in a single playoff year, even though more often than not they have had two legitimate options. Last year, Rinne played all six games against Chicago ahead of Ellis. Ellis was choice over Chris Mason in 2008 and set the franchise record for saves in a playoff game. Tomas Vokoun played all the games against Detroit (2004) and San Jose (2007) when healthy, but watched Mason in 2006 against the Sharks.
This year there is seemingly no choice whatsoever.
“If [Rinne] continues to play the way he’s playing, we’ll be in great shape,” center Mike Fisher said. “He’s been outstanding, and he’s going to be a key to this series, for sure.”
More likely a keystone — a constant, stabilizing presence.