BOSTON (CBS) — Hockey teams always preach the importance of a full 60-minute effort, and in that sense, there’s still a long way to go for the Boston Bruins this season. Yet as the Bruins head to the locker room after finishing the first period of the season with a 4-1 win in Long Island, they have to be feeling pretty good.
The Bruins played their 16th game of the season last night, ending the first third of the 48-game season with a four-game winning streak and having earned 11 out of a possible 14 points thus far in the month of February. They won on Tuesday thanks to balanced, timely goal scoring but also thanks to a typically solid performance by Tuukka Rask, one that’s become a near sure thing every night this season.
“He’s incredible,” said Brad Marchand, who scored what proved to be the game-winner on his team-leading 10th goal. “He’s prepared every night, and he plays his best night in and night out. It seems like he gives us an opportunity to win every night with how he plays.”
With the major story line surrounding the Bruins’ offseason focusing on the departure of Tim Thomas and questioning whether Rask could handle the duties as the No. 1 netminder, Rask has played so well through 16 games that he’s largely put just about all of those questions to bed.
With Tuesday’s victory, Rask earned his NHL-leading 10th win of the season (he’s tied with two others but has played fewer games than both of them). With 36 saves and just one goal allowed, he boosted his save percentage to .930 (tied for fourth among qualified goalies) and his goals-against average to 1.89 (also fourth in the NHL).
Now with 13 starts under his belt, Rask has had exactly one bad night in net, allowing six goals against the Sabres at home at the end of January. Even in that game, though, it’d be hard to blame Rask for four or five of the goals allowed, as Bruins coach Claude Julien said he couldn’t remember a game with a worse defensive effort than he saw that night, when he said his players were “brain-dead” defensively.
Rask hasn’t been the sole reason for the Bruins’ 12-2-2 start to the season to be sure. The Bruins rank seventh in the NHL at 2.94 goals per game, they allow the ninth-fewest shots per game (27.6), and they run a defensive-focused system which Julien has employed for years with the majority of the players on the roster. They are, in every sense of the word, a team, and their record reflects that.
Still, Rask has done about all he could to quell any questions about his ability to compete at a high level on a nightly basis. And on nights when the scoring isn’t there or the defense breaks down, Rask has made up for the temporary deficiencies.
That was the case on Tuesday night, when the Bruins hit the ice in the third period and did their best to show hockey fans why a two-goal lead is considered “the most dangerous lead in hockey.” The Islanders outshot the Bruins 7-2 to begin the final period, when the Bruins led 3-1, and thanks to Rask, that lead stayed intact.
“He played well,” Julien said of Rask after Tuesday’s win on Long Island. “We played a pretty good hockey club tonight, and they gave us a lot of trouble. Our goalie was probably the one that made the difference there as far as keeping the score low on our side.”
With the way Rask has played, nobody’s talking about Thomas anymore, but it’s still worth noting that Rask’s career numbers through 115 NHL games (57-36-13, 2.17 GAA, .927 save percentage) are head and shoulders above Thomas’ first 108 games in the NHL (45-43-14, 3.00 GAA, .900 save percentage). They obviously took drastically different paths to the NHL, and they were playing on very different Bruins teams, but the point is that while Rask may not make the highlight reel as often as Thomas with a diving save while scrambling back into position, the still-25-year-old Finn remains rock solid for the Bruins.
It’s to the point now, even though the Bruins have completed just one-third of their schedule, where even mentioning Thomas when discussing Rask seems outdated and out of place. It’d be hard for Rask to answer those offseason questions any more definitively than he has thus far.