NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As Music City prepared to enjoy a few days at the center of the hockey universe, the Nashville Predators were searching for answers after losing the first two games of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins. No doubt the Predators would make adjustments, but any real hope of evening the series with consecutive home wins would ultimately hinge on the play of Pekka Rinne.
Despite struggling in Pittsburgh and allowing eight goals on 36 shots, the goaltender received a hero's welcome when the Predators returned to Nashville. With a city -- and his teammates -- looking to him for inspiration, Rinne didn't disappoint. The Finnish netminder stood tall and made a series of big saves, particularly during a second period that was easily his best of the series.
If Rinne can continue his stout play in Game 5 on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET) at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, the Predators may have a chance to do the unthinkable and bring the Stanley Cup to Nashville.
"He was incredible today. He made some great saves [on shots] that you thought was going in but he battled back and kept it out of the net," forward Viktor Arvidsson said after Nashville's 4-1 win in Game 4, which evened the series at two games apiece.
"We never doubt Peks. He's an unbelievable player. He steps up for us every night," Arvidsson continued. "He's the key to our game."
Being assured one more home game, Game 6 on Sunday night, should work in Rinne's favor. After his win in Game 4, the 34-year-old now boasts a 13-1 record in his past 14 home games, along with a .945 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average. The environment won't be nearly as hospitable in Pittsburgh.
For what it's worth, Rinne doesn't appear terribly worried about his road play earlier in the series.
"I don't want to look back. We have work to be done. I'm sure at the end of the day when you look back, it's a roller coaster and an emotional ride," said Rinne. "The first two games we did a lot of good things. Personally I wasn't very happy with my game. But obviously these two [last] games have been huge for us, and personally too. It's a game of confidence, being a goalie."
Considering some of the plays Rinne made in Game 4, he should be brimming with confidence. He wasn't perfect; he appeared to lose sight of the puck on a couple of soft shots toward the net. But he could hardly be blamed for the one goal he allowed, a Sidney Crosby breakaway in which the game's best player had more than enough time to make a series of moves that may have tested the structural integrity of Rinne's groin.
It was something of a reminder that, up to that point, Rinne still had not enjoyed a signature Cup Final moment. That all changed in the second period on Monday night.
Tied 1-1 with Pittsburgh after the opening 20 minutes, Rinne made his mark on this series -- and perhaps preserved Nashville's hopes of winning the Stanley Cup -- in the second period of Game 4.
His first big save came point blank against Jake Guentzel 2:31 into the middle period. Just 58 seconds later he stymied Chris Kunitz on a breakaway. The series of big stops appeared to energize his team, as Predators forward Frederick Gaudreau scored the eventual game-winning goal just 16 seconds after Rinne foiled Kunitz.
Then came the moment when the towering Finn officially put his stamp on the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
Crosby found himself on a partial breakaway nine minutes into the second period, a formidable sight considering the incredible play he had made on Pittsburgh's first goal. Forced to his backhand, Crosby took two quick shots in succession, and Rinne stopped them both. In the mad scramble that followed, the puck slid through the crease to Guentzel, who appeared to have nothing but space and a wide open net before him. Without his stick, Rinne lunged and stopped Guentzel's shot with his blocker, bringing Predators fans to their feet in appreciation of a save the hockey world was still talking about long after the final horn sounded in Nashville.
"I made the soccer goalie save and I was able to keep the puck out of the net," Rinne said. "At the moment that was a big play."
Four minutes later Arvidsson scored an insurance goal on a breakaway and Game 4 was effectively in the books.
Not a bad homecoming of sorts for a player who is arguably the most popular among Predators players and fans alike. Center Mike Fisher may be the grizzled captain with the country superstar wife. Forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen may be the young guns who produce flashy offense. Defenseman P.K. Subban may be one of the most charismatic figures in the league. But no player has been embraced more by the surrounding community than Rinne, an eighth-round draft pick in 2004 who emerged from a small town in Northern Finland and gradually won over Nashville thanks to 11 seasons of hard work and outstanding goaltending.
"He's everyone's favorite player, including in this room too. We love him. He's a fantastic person and an unbelievable hockey player," said forward Craig Smith, a veteran of five season in Nashville who has witnessed Rinne's ascent to local-legend status firsthand.
"They put the camera on him in the third or something and he makes big saves and everybody goes crazy," Smith said. "Everybody is on the bench doing the same thing the fans are. We all are."
Those fans won't be there Thursday night in Pittsburgh for a game that, like every one before it during this postseason, will be the biggest in Predators history. There's no doubt the 34-year-old franchise goalie -- whose play was maligned through the first two contests of this series -- has rediscovered his game, and with it his confidence. That could pose more problems for a Penguins team looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
"It doesn't have to be a highlight-reel save, but when you make a timely save it really is a confidence boost," Rinne said. "I feel like a lot of times after that things kind of seem to slow down in your eyes. Maybe you see the puck a little bit better and anticipate a little bit better. It is always a helpful thing."
As the series returns to Steel Town after a wild few days in Music City, Nashville's Cup hopes will rest on Rinne's shoulders.