NASHVILLE – Barry Trotz flashed a grin that was almost devilish on Thursday morning.
"There's no secret with Pekka anymore," he said, somewhat slyly. "We feel he's the top goaltender in the league because we see him on a nightly basis."
Witness the performance of 29-year-old Pekka Rinne hours later and it was easy to understand the sentiment of the Predators head coach. Rinne turned aside 38 shots as the Leafs fell for the fifth time in six games (1-4-1), dropping a 4-1 defeat to the Predators in Music City, also losing Matthew Lombardi and Mike Komisarek to injury.
"It might be the best game we played all season to be honest with you, from start to finish," said Ron Wilson of an effort which saw the Leafs outshoot the home side 39-22. "Their goalie came up huge."
"Couple times we thought we had him," added Joffrey Lupul. "A lot of pretty good shots too. He made big saves all night."
Dictating the pace most of the night, the Leafs outshot the Predators by a 22-5 margin in the final frame, despite a shortened bench that included just ten forwards and six defencemen (Jake Gardiner saw quite a few shifts at forward). Lombardi left the game in the second period favouring his left shoulder, later seen in a sling leaving Bridgestone Arena. Komisarek joined him in the dressing room a few minutes later, grimacing after a blocked shot struck his right arm in the third.
Already without top goaltender James Reimer, third-line winger Colby Armstrong, top six forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, the Leafs continue to spring leaks in a ship that can ill afford any more trauma.
"It sucks that guys are going down like that," said John-Michael Liles, the lone Leaf to beat Rinne. "It's really unfortunate and you feel for them, but it's one of those things that you can't dwell on. It's a matter of guys in the room stepping up and the guys that get opportunities taking advantage of them."
With only eight goals in the last six games, an offensive shortage is cause for some alarm. Phil Kessel (three goals), Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak are the only Leaf forwards to account for any of the damage with Liles (two) and Komisarek uniting for the additional three.
It certainly wasn't for lack of trying in Nashville. Only the efforts of the Rinne kept the Predators in front.
Recently inked to a monstrous seven-year extension worth $49 million, the six-foot-five former Vezina Trophy finalist proved his worth yet again this month; Rinne is 5-0-1 in November with a microscopic 1.48 goals against average and .957 save percentage.
"There's a reason why he got that extension," said Liles. "He's big, he takes up a lot of net and it's a team that plays to give up that first shot, but getting that second shot, that rebound, is a tough thing.
"I thought we did a lot of great things tonight; I thought we were working hard, putting a lot of shots on net and getting bodies to the front. I thought Rinne played extremely well."
"He's one of the best goalies," added Wilson. "We did our best. He was up to the task tonight."
The Predators meanwhile, capitalized on their opportunities – notably the line of Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn – beating Ben Scrivens for three goals on 21 shots, adding an empty-netter late in the game.
"I was really happy with the effort in front of me," concluded Scrivens after an 18-save performance. "I thought the guys played a great game. Maybe I just got outdueled tonight."
Reimer's absence continues to loom large with a timeline for return still very much in question. Recent injuries to Grabovski (knee, two weeks), MacArthur (upper-body), Lombardi and Komisarek only complicate matters for a club struggling to stay afloat in November (3-4-1).
A promising source of depth in the second half last season (Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Keith Aulie come to mind), the Marlies will be counted on in the coming days with names like Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, and Ryan Hamilton surely drawing chatter. Colborne is the name of most intrigue at this point. The 21-year-old is among the AHL leaders in scoring (19 points) despite missing the past three games with an upper-body injury. Brian Burke might be hesitant to plug in a rookie coming off injury, but with the well drying up offensively, he may have no choice.
"There's nothing you can do," concluded Wilson of the rash of injuries. "You just play on with whoever we bring up or guys who aren't playing [that] get in the lineup. We'll do our best."
Jake Gardiner and Craig Smith never could've imagined it a year ago. Teammates for the previous two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, Gardiner and Smith met for dinner in downtown Nashville on Wednesday night, two rookies thriving in the NHL.
"It was neat to see him again," said Smith, the Predators leading scorer entering Thursday's matchup. "It was a surreal experience being in a big city and going out to dinner with him. Just kind of talked about things, how life's going, a lot different conversation than it was last year (laughs)."
Gardiner has shown icy calm in an impressive rookie stint, a fact that hardly surprises Smith.
"Jake's been like that since the first day I met him," said Smith. "He's super cool on the ice. I guess he's cool as a cucumber. He's a great player and he's going to have some success this year."
The 21-year-old Gardiner took quite a few shifts up front against Smith and the Predators, something he hadn't done since his junior year at Minnetonka High School.
"I was alright," he recalled of his high school days. "I had 10 goals and 20-something assists."
Gardiner moved to defence in his senior year.
Tim Connolly returned to the lineup on Thursday after missing the previous four games with an upper-body injury. He was paired with the struggling duo of Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin, logging a shade under 17 minutes of ice-time.
"Tim hasn't played much," said Wilson of Connolly, who has just seven games to his name this season. "I just hope that Tim can kick-start Tim and be focused on himself."
Kulemin has now gone 12 games without a goal, while Frattin has yet to score in 16 games this season.
"Different linemates for Kulie might be refreshing," noted Wilson. "The one thing he's doing is working really hard. Has he had much puck-luck? Not really. But we need him to continue to work hard, finish checks, and fore-check, that's a big part of his game. The puck's eventually going to go in for him."
Predators coach Barry Trotz offered some interesting pre-game thoughts on Kessel and his blazing start to the season.
"He looks like he's got another gear," said Trotz of Kessel, who played over 27 minutes on Thursday. "He's tremendously fast, but watching him this year he's got another gear and part of that gear is probably a little more of that competitive determination.
"Watching from afar, I think he feels comfortable in his role in Toronto. He seems to be wanting to be the go-to-guy and sometimes that's just maturity. To be a top player there's a responsibility to go along with that and to take on that responsibility there has to be a maturity factor to that as well. It might be all a combination, I'm just watching from afar."