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BOSTON (CBS) — He was coming off the most embarrassing moment of his career, a tumble to his backside in the largest city in the United States, on national TV, in a potential series-clinching playoff game. For a 48-hour window on the radio and TV, he opened the door for others to question his ability to close out a series. He said afterward that he had no choice but to laugh it off and move on, but Tuukka Rask knew he did have another option: He could take the ice for Game 5 and play a near-perfect game to lead his team to the conference finals.
And he did it.
Rask turned aside 28 of the Rangers’ 29 shots in Game 5 as the backbone of the Bruins’ 3-1 victory, which sent Boston to the Eastern Conference finals. Rask did not play the most excellent game of his career, because he wasn’t tested in such a way that would have allowed for that. But when the 26-year-old took the podium after the win, he was wearing the team’s Army Ranger jacket, awarded to who the locker room deems to be the player of the game. It was a testament to how happy his teammates were to see him bounce back with a solid performance.
“I didn’t feel bad about myself after Game 4,” Rask said after the Game 5 win. “Obviously there was a little screw-up there, that goal, but I didn’t let that bother me and I felt like I played a decent game after that. Coming into today, I just wanted to be rock solid back there and give our team a chance to win the game.”
Rask did that, but not before giving up a goal and falling behind early. There wasn’t much Rask could do on that Dan Girardi one-time slap shot from the blue line, as the 6-foot-7 frame of Brian Boyle was planted firmly in front of Rask.
As has become his style as he’s matured through the years, Rask remained composed in the crease, stopping every single one of the 23 Rangers shots that followed.
“He’s a guy that, time and time again, shows up to big games,” said Gregory Campbell, who scored Boston’s second and third goals in the win. “We really rely on him, and again tonight he was really good.”
While Rask was stopping every bit of flying rubber headed his way, he did have to wait through long lulls of play, during which the Bruins dominated possession down the other end of the ice. While such a pace is generally a good thing, it can be rendered meaningless if the goaltender doesn’t stand tall when he is inevitably called upon again.
For Rask, that meant being ready for a breakaway by Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who crept behind the Bruins’ defense and skated in 1-on-1 with 11:22 left in a one-goal game. Callahan, who beat Rask badly on a semi-breakaway in Game 2 on the same end of the ice, deked to the backhand. Rask stayed with Callahan, remaining square before making a blocker save and deflecting the puck out of play.
It was just the second shot Rask had faced in more than six-and-a-half minutes, and it was his toughest test in the net. He was ready.
“It’s just staying mentally sharp,” Rask said of the long breaks between seeing shots. “You know something’s going to happen, you know they’re going to throw everything they could at you and try to get that chance to tie the game. Today, it happened to be a breakaway, and I just wanted to make one or two big saves in the third and hopefully keep that lead.”
Rask also revealed that he was not expecting Callahan to go to his backhand.
“Our goalie coach told me after [Callahan's Game 2 goal] that he never goes backhand,” Rask said. “So I was banking on him shooting or keeping it on the forehand. He went backhand, and I just extended my leg and blocker there and made the save.”
Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, playing in his first game in nearly two weeks, admitted to being nervous about the breakaway … at least until he remembered who was between the pipes.
“My heart stopped for a second, but no, we have Tuukka back there and he loves to play in pressure situations,” Seidenberg said. “He made a great save. It’s great to have him back there. He just spreads a certain amount of calmness back there, or confidence. It just helps everybody on the ice.”
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He was tested again with less than seven minutes left in the game, when Rick Nash unleashed a hard wrister toward the right post. Rask again was there with a blocker save to preserve the one-goal lead.
Rask improved his postseason record to 15-10 as a starting goaltender, and he’s now won three of the four postseason series in which he’s played. This most recent win will provide him at least a few well-earned days away from the microscope of critics.
More importantly, the win has the Bruins’ netminder full of confidence heading into what will be a mighty challenge of a series against Pittsburgh. His teammates and coaches share that confidence, an invaluable asset for a hockey team to have as the calendar readies its turn from May to June.