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As he took a solo lap around the Bridgestone Arena ice, Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne fought back tears, cracked a smile and mouthed “I love you guys” as the estimated 7,000 or so fans gave him a standing ovation. 

Once he got back to the bench, Rinne was enveloped by his teammates — led by center Ryan Johansen, who wrapped him in a bear hug and celebrated the Finnish netminder’s 369th — and possibly his final — career win.

“It caught me by surprise,” Rinne said. “I don’t know whose idea it was that all the players came out on the bench. I really appreciated it. I love my teammates and I tried to tell the boys to go back to the locker room. We’ve got playoffs coming up and I don’t always feel comfortable in the spotlight. 

“But again, after a while I think it was Brad Richardson, he told me to take a lap. It doesn’t happen too often, so I’m glad I did. It felt really unbelievable and just the reaction from the fans really felt special.”

While Rinne didn’t confirm that Monday’s 5-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at Bridgestone Arena was the final game of his career, it was clear the 38-year-old approached it as if it was.

“I haven’t made any concrete plans about my future,” he said. “Hopefully, when that day comes, I’ll be looking back at what happened in my last game. But I don’t want to go too far ahead yet. We still have bigger and better things ahead. But if it is (my last game), I’m not going to lie to you, it was a pretty cool game.” 

If this is indeed the end for Rinne, he has much to be proud of. With his 30-save shutout over the No. 1 seeded Hurricanes on Monday, he moved into a tie for 19th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list (369). And his 60 shutouts are tied for the 14th-most in league history.

Rinne ranks among the best at his position in several categories including 20th in save percentage (.917), 25th in saves (17,627) and 28th in goals-against average (2.43). He also won the Vezina Trophy in 2018 — the first Predator to ever win an individual performance award — and he led the team to its only Stanley Cup Final.

In fact, Rinne holds franchise records in basically every statistical category including wins, shutouts, goals-against average, minutes played and goals saved above average.

“His jersey is going to get retired here,” Predators coach John Hynes stated. 

“I’ve played about 100 games here now and he’s one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had,” center Matt Duchene added. “He’s just a great person. I told him it’s going to be awkward when he comes back next year and we do it again in game 82.”

Rinne hasn’t confirmed or denied that he will retire after this season, but the evidence points to the former. Filip Forsberg gathered the puck after the final horn sounded on Monday — presumably for a specific reason — and Rinne has taken a solo victory lap only once in his career — Monday night.

There also are reports from a Finnish newspaper that Rinne is in talks with Finnish hockey team Oulun Karpat about signing to play for them once his contract expires in the summer.

But never one to make things about him, Rinne soaked in everything Monday night from the mid-game standing ovation to the many “Pekka” chants that broke out throughout each period to the countless fan-made signs that said everything from “one more year” to “thanks for everything, Pekka.”

“Here’s a guy that’s one of the best…the best to ever wear a Preds jersey,” Hynes said. “…He means so much to the organization, to the fan base, to the team…I think the big thing that you can tell about a person is the way his teammates reacted to him at the end of the game and how hard they played in front of him and how the fan base reacted to him. It was a special night for Pekks.”

“I mean, overwhelming, I guess is the right word,” Rinne added. “I don't know if I can find the right word (for) how much I appreciate our fans. My relationship with the fans, this city, it means the world to me. I never want it to be about me; this team is going to playoffs and we have big things ahead. But I truly appreciate what happened tonight and it goes very high on my on my personal list [of] my experiences in hockey.”

Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_

(Nashville Post)

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