For the Ottawa Senators, this was a big one, defenceman Chris Phillips’ 1,000th NHL game and a chance to end a seven-game losing slide.
For the Nashville Predators? Well, it was a big night for centre Mike Fisher, returning for the first time since being traded from Ottawa a year ago, but otherwise, just another uneven step on the path to greatness.
Don’t laugh. The Predators, historically a pesky, almost no-name team that performs small miracles under the guidance of head coach Barry Trotz, are suddenly aiming higher.
“We’ve been a (salary cap) floor team for a lot of years,” said Trotz, whose Predators are in the middle of west playoff pack. “Next year we’re going to be a cap team. Some teams are locked in with contracts they’re trying to get rid of, we don’t have that problem.”
Boldly, Trotz predicts the Preds are “turning into the San Jose (Sharks) of the eastern part of the Western Conference.”
In other words, a team to contend with year after year.
“We’re past the stage where we’re just trying to be competitive,” Trotz says. “We want the Cup. That’s where we’re headed, and we have the good young players to do that.”
While hockey fans in Ottawa were reaching for their game programs to identify Nashville forwards such as David Legwand, Martin Erat and Brandon Yip (no problems recognizing that No. 12, Mike Fisher guy), Trotz will tell you this is the Predators most balanced offensive attack he has had in 13 seasons coaching Nashville.
We constantly refer to the “young” Senators, but with an average age of 26.7, the Preds are 1.6 years younger as a group than Ottawa’s average age of 28.3. Because of such kids as Ryan Ellis, 21, last seen here helping Canada’s world juniors win gold, Colin Wilson, 22, and Craig Smith, 22, Trotz believes the Predators will be better next month than this month and better next year than this.
With Pekka Rinne in goal and a defence that includes Shea Weber, Ryan Suter (Trotz thinks he will re-sign with Nashville), and Ellis, the Predators are built from the blue paint out.
“People ask me how to spell Rinne,” says Trotz, ” I spell it M-V-P.”
Might not have looked that way, when Jason Spezza scored on the Senators first shot on goal Thursday, but Rinne has been spectacular. Senators general manager Bryan Murray is among those who believe Rinne is the best goaltender in the NHL this season.
Murray likes to tease Nashville GM David Poile that he never drafted goaltenders when Murray was coaching Poile-managed teams in Washington. Now, he has two good ones from the draft in the 6-6 Rinne and his even taller backup, 6-7 Anders Lindback, a Swede.
Not that Poile used up any high selections to get them. Rinne was an 8th round pick, 258th overall, in 2004 and Lindback was a 7th round pick, 207th overall, in 2008.
INSPIRED BY COUSIN
Rinne says he only became a goalie because his older cousin, Jari, in Kempele, Finland, was a goalie and Pekka always wanted to copy him. He had the good fortune of playing on a couple of championship teams with Karpat of the Finnish Elite League teams in 2004 and 2005. Rinne was a backup to Niklas Backstrom, now with the Minnesota Wild.
Poile’s assistant GM Ray Shero, now the Pittsburgh Penguins GM, essentially drafted Rinne on the basis of watching Rinne in the warmup one game – that plus the recommendation of Nashville’s Finnish scout.
“If I had played for a losing team, there’s no way I would have got drafted,” Rinne says. “I didn’t play a lot but I played pretty well and I was fortunate Nashville was interested.”
Casually talking to reporters on game day, Rinne and his famously calm demeanour belie a competitive fire.
” If we score on him in practice we celebrate because it rarely happens,” says Ellis.
There’s a reason Finland churns out so many professional goaltenders, according to Rinne. In Finland, goalies rock.
“The national team is a big thing back home and we’ve always had good national team goalies throughout the years,” Rinne says. “Obviously Finland is a hockey country, people always look up to those big name goalies, so a lot of kids just want to be goalies. Also, the coaching is at a very high level and even the youngest kids have goalie coaches.”
As a boy, Rinne admired Jarmo Myllys, who went on to play briefly in the NHL with Minnesota and San Jose after leading the Finns to a stunning silver medal performance at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. After that, Pekka watched Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames, but also several other NHL goalies as he picked up televised games overseas.
With 30 victories in the books as he arrived in Ottawa, the 29-year-old Rinne is in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy this season. His coach, for one, understands his value.
“We wouldn’t be in the position we are now if it wasn’t for Pekka,” Trotz says. “We have a young team and we didn’t play well at the start.”