A couple of years ago, when Shea Weber was still in Nashville, I would hear this sound after our practices would end.
It was like a gunshot, or a tree snapping in half.
Even from the locker room I could hear it. It would echo around the arena and — if you weren’t used to it — you’d look at people nearby for some reassurance that everything was O.K. Seriously, it sounded like a firing squad had entered the rink.
I had been around long enough, though. I knew what it was: Webs letting clappers go from the blue line.
They were the hardest slap shots I’ve ever seen in my life … just over and over again. For about 4½ years I saw it when we were teammates. In a game it was just as loud, and just as deadly. And goalies could never really get the hang of how to deal with his shot. It would usually go in, or if a goalie got a piece of the puck, there’d be a huge rebound. So I knew his shot well. I’d seen the spectacle plenty of times.
One day, I stayed behind after practice. And there was Webs doing his usual … BANG! … BANG! … BANG! But then I saw something I didn’t expect.
Usually he’d just shoot on an empty net and try to pick a corner. But that day, Pekka Rinne had stayed behind to field some Weber Classics™.
Because goalies are weird.
I was kind of half watching from the bench when I noticed that Pekka wasn’t allowing any rebounds — which almost seems physically impossible with the puck coming so hard. So I zoned in on Pekka. He was doing this … odd thing. When Webs would shoot, Pekka would shift so that the puck was coming at him on his blocker side. And then, as it would hit his blocker, he’d move his glove over and trap it — almost like he was swatting a fly on his arm or something. It was insane. I had never really seen anything like it.
I yelled out to Webs, “What … what is he doing?”
“Peks, man. It’s Peks.”
Look, I get it. There are a lot of goalies having great seasons. And sure, they all have valid arguments for winning the Vezina. But give me five minutes of your time right now and I’ll make it crystal clear who the 31 general managers should choose.
He’s 35 years old and having another ridiculous season.
You want stats? We got stats.
How about a .927 save percentage, 42 wins and a 2.31 goals-against average? Pretty sick.
Oh, you want fancy stats? We got those, too.
I had to do some digging for this: He’s got a .835 high-danger save percentage, one of the best in the league for goalies who have played more than 40 games. Peks: Even good on the spreadsheet.
Now that you know the numbers, let me tell you something else about the Peks I know. He is the ultimate pro. If I could build a hockey player from scratch, I’d model him after Peks. He’s got that Nordic presence about him, that calm, cool, never-too-high-never-too-low attitude. It’s pretty clear to see when he’s on the ice. Off it, though, he’s just as great, and he has the respect of the entire room when he speaks.
The best example of his leadership can actually be seen when he’s not playing. Our backup, Juuse Saros (Juuuuuuuuuuice!), has been joined at the hip with Peks all year, and it’s clear in his play — he’s been outstanding. The guys have started calling them “father and son.” They’re one of the league’s best goalie tandems. The relationship between a starter and a backup isn’t always straightforward — that’s what makes their friendship so great. They’re unique. They push each other all the time, and nobody is tapping the bench harder than Peks after Juice makes a big save.
The funny thing about Juice is, like every young guy who comes over from Europe to play in the NHL, the adjustment is hard at first. Juice might not have known at first, but he had more in common with kids in Nashville than he thought. Peks was his favorite player when he was growing up in Finland. And if you’ve been to Nashville — heck, if you’ve been to Tennessee — you know that Peks is everybody’s favorite player.
I knew who Peks was when I came into the NHL in 2011, of course. But I was a D-man. I just assumed that the Predators’ biggest stars were Webs and Ryan Suter. I noticed after my first few games in Nashville, though, that the most popular Pred was number 35 … and it wasn’t really that close. Even now, walking out to the parking lot after practice, there’s 10–15 people waiting for autographs and at least nine of them are wearing Peks jerseys. And he signs for every single person out there, every single day. Because that’s just Peks.
He’s been doing it all for this team for a decade now. And somehow he keeps getting better and better. It would have been understandable if he had come into camp this year a little sluggish, a little tired. It was a deep playoff run for us and Peks carried the team for long stretches. If it had gone our way in the Cup finals, he would have won the Conn Smythe — without a doubt.
If I could build a hockey player from scratch, I’d model him after Peks.
It started in Game 1 against Chicago last year in the first round of the playoffs. We scored early in the first and Peks just put on a show, making 29 saves and getting the shutout. That whole series he was playing out-of-this-world good. That was the Peks we see every day. I think it took me a full year before I was able to score on him clean during practice. And during our Cup run, he had the same intensity during any training drill. He’d be diving post-to-post to make a huge save, or stepping up to face a P.K. slap shot. I was thinking,
Because it’s just Peks. He sets an example for every single guy in our room.
There’s this feeling amongst all of our defensemen that, whenever we get scored on, one of us must have done something wrong. Because Pekka doesn’t let in bad goals. Which one of us messed up? After Patric Hornqvist scored for Pittsburgh in Game 6 of the finals last year with less than two minutes to go — to basically end the series — I was face-to-face with Pekka in the crease. It was such a strange goal. And for once, I knew it wasn’t really anybody’s fault. I looked Pekka in the eyes and I could see how heartbroken he was.
But then he took a breath and tapped me on the shins. Because he’s our leader.
I missed some time this year with an injury and I got the chance to watch our team from the press box. It gave me a new perspective on this year’s group. I think we’re ready for another deep run.
I can’t wait for playoff hockey in Nashville again.
But before that, there’s a Finnish goalie here who wears number 35, and who’s done nothing but be great and who deserves some recognition. So to the general managers who are going to vote, if you’re still debating who should win the Vezina, I’ll make it easy for you: