SPORTS

Return of Rinne, team defence key to Predators' return to playoffs

04/10/2015 02:45 EDT | Updated 06/11/2015 10:59 EDT
These aren't Barry Trotz's Nashville Predators anymore.

Nashville is back in the playoffs after a two-season absence, and this time the team bears the mark of first-year coach Peter Laviolette.

The return of goaltender Pekka Rinne, addition of talent up front and maturation of young defencemen all combined with Laviolette's fast style to make some beautiful music together on the ice this season.

"We're playing aggressive this year," defenceman Roman Josi said recently in Washington. "We forecheck hard and the Ds slam down walls. I think it's just an up-tempo game."

It's an up-tempo game the Predators believe translate well to their first post-season since 2012, when Trotz, who coached the team from its inception in 1998 until being fired after last season, led them to the second round.

The majority of the offence has come from the top line of newcomers Mike Ribeiro and James Neal and rookie Filip Forsberg, with a lot of help from the top defensive pair of Josi and Shea Weber.

But Nashville's best bet to make a long run this spring is its deep blue-line and all-world goaltender. As U.S. coach at last year's world championships Laviolette saw Rinne round back into form for Finland and put up a .923 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average for the Predators.

"There are going to be things that happen and he's going to have to make big saves," Laviolette said in February in Buffalo. "He's made those big saves for us."

Rinne missed much of the 2013-14 season with a hip injury and ensuing infection. Trotz said on a January conference call he knew how close Rinne was to maybe not playing again and beamed at how the 32-year-old came back.

"There's a mental block you have to get through, and he was able to get through it. You don't know if a player is going to be quite the same," Trotz said. "To me, he’s been the best game-changer in the league this year."

Josi called Rinne the Predators' most important player. But he has also had some help.

Weber and Josi are Norris Trophy candidates, and the Predators' defence also includes Ryan Ellis, Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm and trade-deadline acquisition Cody Franson.

"That D corps is one of the best in the National Hockey League," Trotz said recently in Washington. "It's very mobile, it's getting better and better with a year or two of experience under their belts for a lot of those guys."

Nashville has the best goal differential in the Western Conference, something Josi said is also thanks to forwards playing so well defensively. With forwards collapsing and helping defend in the slot, opponents get fewer open looks on Rinne and defencemen can worry about back-door plays more.

Now the test is if it keeps working in the post-season when the intensity gets turned up.

"We've been playing it all year and we've been pretty successful," Josi said. "Playoffs, it's tough, there's so many good teams no matter who you play in the first round. I definitely think it can win games."

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