The math will tell you Monday night's game at Bridgestone Arena between the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes didn't mean much.
Both teams had already qualified for the playoffs, and their seeds were locked in. Indeed, the teams will meet again in the postseason, as 2021's one-off Central Division will send four Southern teams (the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning will join the ’Canes and Preds) in the quest for the Stanley Cup, no doubt angering a host of humorless Canadians.
Oh how the mathematically inclined love to tell you math never lies, that its truths are universal and unchanging, that all the world's answers come at the end of an equation.
But sometimes — maybe lots of times if we look for it — poetry contains more truth than arithmetic.
No, Game 56 of 2021 for the Nashville Predators would have no effect on the standings, no input on draft order. A glorified exhibition! A preview filled with understudies before the curtain goes up on the big show this weekend (probably).
How charmless, how colorless one's life must be to think that way.
There was a reason 12,000-plus Smilodon-clad fans made the trek to Fifth and Broadway, likely for the first time this season for most of them. And that reason has been part of their lives for 15 years, wears unassuming cardigans and an easy smile off the ice, and wears No. 35 and steely eyes on it.
Pekka Rinne, who the math will tell you is the franchise's all-time leader in wins and shutouts, is in the last year of his contract with the team that drafted him in 2004, in the eighth round (which doesn't even exist anymore), taking a flyer on a guy who wasn't even the starter on his Finnish team, but who David Poile's insightful European scouts had a feeling about. The lanky youngster came to America to hone his skills with the minor league team in Milwaukee, won the starting job there, and through trades and injuries and talent and hard work, eventually became the No. 1 guy for the big club and crafted a legendary career — with All-Star Game appearances and a Vezina Trophy and hours and hours of desperation stick saves and glove work that would make Frank Robinson blanche.
There are teenagers who probably don't remember a time before Pekka. There are tweens, with their TikToks and their Roblox, who weren't yet born the last time Rinne wasn't the Preds' top netminder.
And there are newly minted 40-year-old men who can't imagine the Nashville Predators without him.
Yes, Monday night was all about Pekka. He's given away his top goalie role to his fellow countryman Juuse Saros, whose astounding spring propelled the Predators into the postseason against all odds. Saros, like his mentor Rinne, is beloved in a way that goalies have been in the Music City for more than two decades now.
But — and this isn't his fault — he's not Pekka.
It seems a foregone conclusion that Pekka is going to retire once they put a bow on this season. He's 38, he's accomplished plenty (though that Stanley Cup has been elusive), and he has nothing left to prove. He has nothing left to give to us.
So he decided to put on a show Monday.
The math will say it was him who stopped 30 shots, putting up his 60th career shutout in a 5-0 win over Carolina, playing behind a ragtag group of teammates as coach John Hynes opted to rest many of the team's best players. (Of course, this season, "ragtag" has been de rigueur for the Preds.) But it wasn't just Rinne. Every shot the ’Canes sent goalward, every chance, every bouncing puck, every slapshot that seemed destined for the net, every skidder that looked like it might sneak behind him, Rinne had 12,000-plus people with him, willing him to make a save, screaming as if the combined sonic force of the crowd might put just enough english on the puck to send it to safety.
I daresay there's not been another athlete in Nashville's short time as a big-league city so beloved as Rinne. The late Steve McNair, maybe, but he never got a proper goodbye from the city — either on the field or, tragically, off of it.
Rinne, always quick to take the blame and share the credit, always with a nice word, always asking how you're doing, always gracious with the fans, always visiting hospitals, always giving, from the beginning an underdog, counted out because of injury or slipping play a thousand times, only to cement his legend by backstopping a Stanley Cup run and being named the league's best goaltender as an encore. They say never meet your heroes, but if Rinne is yours — and there's plenty of reasons he should be — he's an exception. Meet him and you'll be glad you did. And he will too.
The Predators didn't officially declare Monday "Pekka Rinne Night" or anything — after all, he hasn't actually said he's retiring — but they didn't have to. We knew. With 10 minutes left in the game, the fans cheered throughout the media timeout, something Rinne's seen time and again. Before, the TV Timeout Standing O has been for the team, but Monday, it was just for him, because for so long, it's Rinne who has been the team, though he'd never allow himself to think so.
The cheers lasted as the seconds subtracted, and it was obvious, even from the stands, Rinne was getting emotional. He needed a little more time to compose himself during stoppages and even under a helmet, it was clear he was looking up at the stands and soaking in the moment.
And when the horn sounded and hands went up, when Rinne officially kept a team off the scoreboard yet again, the usual post-game applause grew into an avalanche of adulation for that lanky Finn. His teammates streamed onto the ice and the usual post-game fist bumps to the goalie became dude-hugs (except for famously enthusiastic hugger Ryan Johansen, who all but enveloped Rinne with his embrace). The guys who had the night off made their way from the suite down to the bench and they too poured their appreciation on Rinne.
No one made for the exits to beat the traffic and get in line at Wendy's. We stayed as Rinne, finally, decided it was OK if it was about him, for once, and took a lap around the ice, mask slid back, tears and smiles all over his familiar face, his stick raised. If this was it, it was perfect.
After the game, in front of the Zoomed-in press, he tried to gather his thoughts, but said he couldn't find the words. Maybe there's one in Finnish. Maybe there isn't.
Maybe there's only poetry that can explain it.