- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Goaltender Pekka Rinne remembers Game 5 of Nashville’s first-round series loss in 2010 to the Chicago Blackhawks only too well.

The Predators were less than a minute away from taking control of the series.

Leading 4-3, Martin Erat’s pass went to the Blackhawks with Patrick Kane scoring with seconds left on the clock to force overtime. Marian Hossa scored the game-winner, and instead of being up 3-2 heading back to Nashville, the Predators were down 3-2.

The Blackhawks wound up winning the series in six games on the way to the first of three Stanley Cups in six seasons.

“That was a huge disappointment,” Rinne said of his first playoff experience. “We pretty much thought that we had it, and then we blew it away. That’s a memory that’s always been in the back of my head, and it’s been a disappointing one. You use that to your advantage. You try to look back and learn from it and move forward.”

That close call takes a backseat to 2015 when Rinne also was in net as Chicago beat Nashville once again in six games in the first round on the way to another Stanley Cup.

Now the backbone of the Predators for nine seasons gets another chance at the Blackhawks in the teams’ third first-round series. This best-of-seven series starts Thursday night with Game 1 in Chicago.

“I feel lucky that I’ve had a chance to play against them a couple times in the playoffs, and this is my third time and really looking forward to it,” Rinne said.

This postseason offers a chance at redemption for the 6-foot-5 native of Kempele, Finland. The goalie who has finished second for the Vezina Trophy twice and third in another season has helped Nashville to the second round in three of his five postseasons.

But Rinne hasn’t been among the NHL’s best in net this season. He ranked 12th with a .918 save percentage, the same as Chicago goalie Corey Crawford. Rinne also ranked 12th with a 2.42 goals against average. Rinne has gotten more rest this season, playing five fewer games than last season, thanks to the development of fellow Finn, Juuse Saros.

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette made it clear that while it’s nice to have two goalies, Rinne remains his top choice.

“He’s playing great right now,” Laviolette said. “He played phenomenal in Winnipeg (in the regular season finale). He’s our guy.”

Rinne has been playing much better since the start of March. Rinne has a 1.98 goals against average with his save percentage up to .932 in a 13-game span, including one shutout.

Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane told The Associated Press on Tuesday that they know Rinne is going to be a big part of the Predators, a goalie who has played really well against Chicago.

“Big goaltender. Never quits on a play. I think he’s one of those guys that’s going to be tough to beat with a shot if you’re straight-on with him. I think the biggest thing is, just like lot of these other goalies in the league, is try to get traffic, try to get him moving side to side, use the one-timers. But we know he’s going to make big saves.”

Rinne knows only too well how much a hot goalie can carry a team at this time of year. He helped the Predators beat Anaheim in seven games a year ago before pushing San Jose to a seventh game in the second round before losing their 14th game in 28 days.

The goalie also is 34 and understands the playoffs are not guaranteed, even with a franchise making its 10th appearance in the past 13 seasons.

“Obviously everything magnifies, and you want to have your best game in the playoffs,” Rinne said. “Of course, I realize that goalie can be a difference maker, and no matter what, most of the time when a team wins the Stanley Cup, usually the goalie is one of the better players during that stretch run. … I’m really excited for this challenge.”

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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AP Freelance Writer Matt Carlson contributed to this report from Chicago.

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