The past four months have been more about what Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has done off the ice than on it, but finally that focus is coming to an end.
In May 2013, Nashville’s world-class netminder underwent a hip arthroscopy. A four-month recovery timeline presented to him, Rinne rehabbed the entire summer and part of the fall. Despite missing a portion of the preseason, Rinne rebounded and began the 2013-2014 campaign right on track.
Good news for a Predators team that leans on their goalie as heavily as Nashville does.
But just 10 games into this season, disaster struck. Flying home after a start against the Minnesota Wild, Rinne became feverish and felt ill. Doctors determined the goaltender’s hip was infected with E. coli, a complication from his first surgery. A life-threatening illness suddenly thrust upon him, Rinne went back under the knife and saw a murky pathway to recovery laid out before him.
Severely injured just after his initial recovery, the 31-year-old goaltender began to rehab and recover a second time, never doubting he’d make a comeback.
“I never thought it was the end. I just never knew how long it was going to take, that was the hardest thing. Never once did I think this might be it, or that I wouldn’t come back this season,” Rinne said. “I didn’t really worry about that too much.”
Unlike his first elongated-recovery period in 2013, however, Rinne’s hip infection was rare and the recovery time unpredictable. Not very comforting for a player trying to return from a second serious setback.
“Obviously you want to get back healthy as soon as possible,” said Rinne. “The most difficult thing was that there wasn’t a timeline or time table.”
The Predators played 51 games without Rinne as weeks became months and real-world seasons changed with the Finnish goaltender still sidelined.
Missing out on the Winter Olympics and months of the NHL season, No. 35’s determination and focus remained rigid as he slowly regained his strength.
Finally, Rinne returned to Nashville’s net this past week.
But how effective could the goaltender really be after missing so much time? And would his play be anywhere near the level it was prior to his two major injuries?
Rinne answered both of those questions on a single save less than three minutes into his first NHL start since October 22nd. In Tuesday’s contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Rinne went cross crease to deny a two-on-one chance by forwards Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
“A good chance for two pretty good players,” Rinne commented. “That was a pretty great way to start the game and my first one back in awhile.”
Over the three games since his return, Rinne has almost unbelievably returned to the All-Star quality form he’s displayed in years past.
The neminder’s determination and acrobatics in net were again on center stage in the Predators last game on Saturday, for example. Rinne made 35 saves on 36 shots and repeatedly befuddled the Blue Jackets forwards with their inability to find the back of the net.
“It’s so much fun right now just being back. I just really enjoy every minute of it,” Rinne said. “I really appreciate to have the chance to be back playing. It is a process, but I felt confident and comfortable out there tonight.”
Two recoveries from a pair of severe injuries might be enough for some players, but for the excellence Rinne expects out of himself, nothing short of perfection is good enough.
“It feels great to be back and I’m enjoying every minute of it,” Rinne said. “Hopefully I can improve all the time.”