If this was the end for Pekka Rinne and Nashville Predators, it was a perfect sendoff | Estes
Afterward, when Pekka Rinne kept circling the ice in the spotlight, he smiled and mouthed the only word that could sum up such a spectacle: “Wow.”
He didn’t want to leave the ice. No one at Bridgestone Arena seemed to want him to, either, from fans on their feet to teammates hugging, applauding and tapping sticks on the ice for the most legendary player this franchise has known.
It sure felt like an end.
If it was, man, what a fitting one.
Rinne’s 683rd game for the Nashville Predators was a shutout, like 59 previous ones in 15 seasons.
Well, actually, not at all like those others.
“Overwhelming, I guess is the right word,” Rinne said. “Very special.”
Monday night’s 5-0 regular-season finale win over the Carolina Hurricanes meant nothing in the standings, and yet so much to so many. Fans at Bridgestone Arena wore No. 35 jerseys and held Pekka Rinne signs. They cheered and chanted through 30 saves, clearly grasping significance widely assumed, not spoken.
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The 38-year-old Rinne’s contract expires after this season, but Juuse Saros’ backup hasn’t officially said he is retiring or leaving town. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to imagine Rinne in another NHL uniform, which perhaps was a reason behind that recent report from his native Finland suggesting he might return to play for a team there.
As such, an emotional, tear-inducing evening was assured once the Preds clinched a playoff spot Saturday night with one game to spare.
No question, that game was to be Rinne’s night. And it was.
It started in the first two minutes, when Preds fans chanted Rinne’s first save, and then just continued with standing ovations. During a timeout at the 11:36 mark of the third period, Rinne appeared on the big screen, looking around at the gold shirts.
This was love. The mutual kind.
“My relationship with the fans, this city, it means the world to me,” Rinne said. “I never want it to be about me. This team is going to the playoffs and we have big things ahead. But I truly, truly appreciate what happened tonight. It goes very high on my personal list, my experiences in hockey. I was emotional all day.”
There will be more opportunities to immortalize Rinne, probably sooner rather than later. Unforgettable as this was, it’s still premature to call it a career. He’s not doing that yet. There is a postseason yet to played. Who can say that Rinne won’t be needed to fill in for Saros at some point?
Because Rinne can still play. That has been evident this season, and Monday night, too. Both teams rested key players, but Rinne – after not playing for a month -- shut down the Hurricanes without defensemen Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm in front of him.
Many other contributing Preds rested Monday night, but they made it down to the bench afterward, wearing suits and applauding along with an arena full of watering eyes.
“He's a special guy,” said forward Matt Duchene, who scored a pair of goals Monday. “He could have zero wins and zero anything as a hockey player, and he's a special person. I've played about 100 games here now, and he's one of my favorite teammates I've ever had, just a great person. I told him it's going to be awkward when he comes back next year and we do it again in Game 82.”
Never have such comments been more apparent than this season, when the net at Bridgestone ceased being Rinne's net.
His understudy and countryman Saros was finally ready to take Rinne’s spot and run with it. While Saros starred in leading the Preds’ dramatic recovery this season to reach the playoffs, Rinne watched.
Had to have been a difficult experience for a goaltender of Rinne’s stature, though you’d never know it by his words or actions. Rinne has been pure class, the ultimate team-first player. Priceless for Saros, obviously, as well as an entire team fighting for its postseason lives.
"Pekka wanted him to do well. The way that (Rinne) handled himself, I think, was a big factor (for Saros)," Preds coach John Hynes said.
And no one who knew Rinne was surprised.
Athletic achievement at the highest professional level is a work in progress in Nashville. Near-misses account for the pinnacle of success in a city still in its sporting adolescence. Accordingly, our heroes haven’t been loved for rings and titles as much as greatness more difficult to quantify.
Great players, yes. But quality people, too. We’ve been blessed in that way.
It’s a short list, but Rinne is near the top.
He will stay there.
“I haven't made any concrete plans about my future,” Rinne said, “but if it is (the end), I'm pretty happy. When that day comes, I'll be looking back to what happened in my last game.”
Reach Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.