By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The fans going nuts at the biggest party in Nashville, catfish flying onto the ice and then a stirring postseason run coming to a screeching halt in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh.
Pekka Rinne chooses to embrace those memories and the emotions that came with losing a chance to hoist the Cup. The goaltender sees his best postseason ever pushing him as Nashville works to return to hockey's biggest stage.
"I'm not scared of those feelings, what happened in the finals and how it ended," Rinne said. "I think that's a very positive thing in my head. I think that's going to help us. That's going to fuel us moving toward moving on this season."
Building on his playoff performance isn't the only challenge Rinne faces.
He will match his sweater number in November when he turns 35, and only two seasons remain on the $49 million contract extension he signed in 2011. Also, the goalie Nashville hopes will be Rinne's eventual replacement, fellow Finn Juuse Saros, is learning and growing behind him.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette says the Predators don't view the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist as getting older.
"He comes in in phenomenal shape," Laviolette said. "You see him out there in a practice like that working for every shot, he's as competitive as it gets. And I expect great things from him for our team. But certainly him, he's been a backbone of this team for so many years."
The goaltenders that play into their 40s like Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur are the exception in the modern NHL. Last season, just four goaltenders 35 or older played in the league: Roberto Luongo (37), Ryan Miller (36), Craig Anderson (35) and Michael Leighton (35). Only Luongo and Anderson posted winning records.
Rinne ranked 10th in the NHL playing 61 games and 12th with 31 wins last season. He posted a .918 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-against average as the Predators wound up as the second wild-card in the Western Conference.
Then Rinne turned in his best postseason yet, leading the Predators to 14 wins and their first conference title. He played a league-best 1,288.44 minutes while posting two shutouts and notching three assists. The Penguins chased him twice in the Final , making Rinne look more human though he finished with a .930 save percentage and 1.96 GAA.
Rinne said he took only a couple weeks off before starting to prepare himself physically for the new season, which begins Thursday night in Boston. It's a regimen that includes yoga to keep the 6-foot-5 goalie limber enough to twist his body while protecting his net.
"You have to even train harder and be smarter, what you put in your body and how you take care of your body," Rinne said of growing older.
Just how well Rinne takes care of his body and his preparation is something center Ryan Johansen noticed pretty quickly after joining the Predators in January 2016. Johansen said Rinne is one of those people who does everything right all the time, and that's why he's expecting the goaltender to be even better this season.
"He's got a lot of game left in him, and we saw that just this last year," Johansen said. "The sky's the limit for him."
Thanks to Saros, Rinne played five fewer games last season than he did the season before. The 61 games played were the fewest in a healthy season for the goalie since 2009-10. Laviolette said the Predators have a schedule for how many games to play Rinne, though the coach didn't share that number and he noted that rarely, if ever, does the season follow the plan.
Rinne said he and Saros push each other to be better in what he calls a friendly competition.
"When you come to work, you both do the best you can for sure," Rinne said. "This is our livelihoods, and that's why you end up being here because you're so competitive and you want to win. You want to be the guy and things like that, and he's the same way. So there's always competition. But it's a good competition."
Still, nothing compares to a playoff run that was tough to accept in the days after seeing the Penguins lift the Stanley Cup on Nashville's ice. Rinne says he's very proud of a career highlight for himself and the Predators.
"We took a huge step toward our ultimate goal," Rinne said.
And Rinne is determined to help the Predators grab the Cup for themselves.