Pekka Rinne’s return to the ice was fantastic news for the Nashville Predators organization. The Predators have missed their rock in net for up to four months after an infection related to his off-season hip surgery. They’ve been hanging outside of the playoff picture this season and Rinne’s return offers hope that there still could be a late surge for playoff hockey.
“It’s pretty straight forward,” said Pekka Rinne when asked of his goals upon returning to Nashville. “It’s making the playoffs.”
Having followed this story since essentially late-October, the speculation train traveled miles and miles through when he would return to the rink. In time for the Olympics? Just prior to the Olympics? During the Olympics? After? Not at all? It was all a mystery and for good reason. There really wasn’t a baseline for an athlete such as Pekka Rinne experiencing an E. Coli infection. It was that uncertainty that made this a waiting game for all involved. Priority #1, his health.
It may have taken massive patience on his part but he finally started ramping up his recovery process at the start of February. That was merely a trial run for the practice session he would take part in two weeks later. The more he practiced the more the rumor mill swirled over the possibilities of his possible conditioning stint. Then it became a reality on Wednesday of last week. He was coming back to the Admirals.
What truly made this a special moment was that Rinne wasn’t just getting the chance to hit the ice for a game for the first time in four months – it was that he was able to make his return where his career in North America all started, Milwaukee. The time that he spent in this city was instrumental in his development. Not only on the ice, where he spent three-seasons with the Admirals, but off of the ice. He was adapting to life in a new country. He needed to learn a new language, had to figure out how to do day-to-day tasks such as paying the bills, and didn’t find himself in a car of his own until his final season in the AHL.
During last season’s 35th Anniversary campaign he was selected as the top Admiral of all-time. His work in net over three-seasons saw him play 145 games, post 81 wins, a 2.54 GAA, 0.911 SV%, and record a total of 10 shutouts. He also played in 24 playoff games for the Ads where he won 12 games, had a 2.76 GAA, 0.907 SV%, and 4 shutouts.
The frenzy involved with his arrival to the city and return to game action saw the likes of myself and a few other local media types, here’s looking at you Fox 6, turn up for morning skate on Friday. In fact, Jeremy Gover and Robby Stanley made the drive up to Milwaukee all the way from Nashville to take part in the festivities.
The game that would follow was nothing short of special. The Admirals routed the Iowa Wild to the tune of 9-1. While most admitted that there wasn’t much in the way of “work” for Rinne to do in the game, it was what was happening outside of the rink that was really moving to me.
When the Admirals step out of the tunnel for pre-game skate, there is typically a minor acknowledgement on the part of the fans to salute their team the very first chance they get. Still, plenty are walking through the gates and many more are circling the complex. For Rinne’s return on Friday night, there was almost a tension brewing in the building as the scoreboard clock was counting down to the pre-game skate siren. Fans along the Admirals tunnel were all peering in to get their first glance of him. Then, high fives to as many fans as he could reach, and Rinne stepped onto the ice to a great reception.
That was just the pre-game skate. When his name was mentioned by Milwaukee Admirals radio play-by-play man Aaron Sims during his keys to the game – another pop.
First time anyone had ever cheered a “Key to the Game”. The applause coming from “Key 3: Pekka Rinne”
— Aaron Sims (@aaronadmirals) March 1, 2014
When he was introduced by name, by former-Admirals Roundtable editor-in-chief Ryan Miller I might add, the crowd was on their feet letting him know they (1) missed him (2) were excited for him (3) couldn’t wait to see what he can do. The fans then stayed for the three stars of the game and gave Rinne another incredibly warm ovation. It was something that was clearly not lost on him at all.
“That felt great,” smiled Rinne. “I really appreciate it. For sure, it made me feel welcome and made me feel great. I had three really good years here and I thought that I always had a good relationship with the fans. And I really appreciate their response.”
The attendance for Friday’s game was 6,492. So how would things go with a Sunday crowd of 15,021?
In truth, every single aspect felt the same on Sunday except for the game – which produced a few less goals than the prior night. He wasn’t forced to handle many shots in that game either, but the amount of blocked shots and skipping pucks, all while the Rochester Americans crashed the net, meant his focus had to be perfect the entire game. It was.
The only goals he had allowed during the weekend came from mistakes.
On Friday, the Admirals forgot to send a player into the penalty box to serve a Mike Liambas boarding major – and were caught with four-players on the ice as a result. Dean Evason admitted to the mistake as they tried getting a player to the box following Joonas Rask’s shorthanded goal. They failed to get a man in the box and, therefore, needed to wait until the next whistle before a player could join the ice. The next whistle came after the Wild’s lone goal of the game was scored – a Zach Miskovic shot that fluttered through traffic and in.
Sunday, the Admirals were caught up in the moment of Charles-Olivier Roussel’s opening goal – defensemen were aggressively skating up after the Admirals lost the faceoff draw – and Jamie Tardif was off to the races for a breakaway.
The goal from the Wild in the grand scheme of Friday’s game, 9-1 Ads win, didn’t mean too much. The goal from Rochester is one that he could have made huge stop to bail out a mental lapse from the team in front of him and he couldn’t. Of the two goals allowed, both from mistakes out of his control, it is the second one that could give him a cringe, sigh, repeat memory of his return – which could have ended with a shutout victory. And, I suppose, some could argue for him possibly heading back to Nashville after back-to-back shutouts had those mistakes not been made.
Conditioning was the name of this assignment and in the two games he logged 121:28 minutes in net. It never looked like fatigue was a factor to his performance. Credit that to an Admirals defense that took much pressure off of him with two of their most structured defensive games of the season. Still, it should be a major plus for Rinne, as he returns to the Nashville Predators, that he knocked the rust off, experienced what you simply can’t simulate in practice, and skated off from both games looking and feeling good.
“It was great,” said Rinne. “I couldn’t be happier. It’s been a long time since playing games. It was a great opportunity for me to come down here in Milwaukee. It kind of went both ways. I feel like I was able to help the team a little bit and they helped me to get some game action. It was a great opportunity for me. Really happy that I came.”
My last snippet worth mentioning, and what truly sums up Pekka Rinne’s return to Milwaukee for me, was what happened as he skated off of the Bradley Center ice. I didn’t see it happen in person but the squadron of fans seated around the Admirals tunnel alerted me to it. In typical Rinne style, he skated off after being announced as the game’s second star and handed his goalie stick to a kid. That’s the type of person he is. Absolute class.
There is a good chance that he makes his return to the Nashville Predators net tomorrow night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. When asked if that is something he felt he could do he said, “I’m ready to go. Absolutely. 100%.” Should that happen, I feel an equally warm response will be given in Nashville as it was in Milwaukee. For a man that carries himself with such class and professionalism. He deserves nothing less every time he takes to the ice.
Did you get to attend any of the games this weekend? How do you feel Pekka Rinne will play in his return to the NHL after this stint with the Admirals?