By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins have their very own version of the chicken-or-the-egg eternal conundrum.

What came first: A great defensive system, or elite goaltending?

More specifically, as it relates to netminder Tuukka Rask, is the netminder truly one of the game’s best, or is his success a product of Claude Julien’s team-wide philosophy structure more than it is of Rask’s own talents?

It’s a question that, to be honest, is wildly unfair. While yes, it is true that a goaltender has a higher rate of success if he plays for the Bruins instead of the Islanders, an NHL goaltender must still possess an exceptional level of talent, reflexes and smarts to be able to consistently post statistics which rank him among the league leaders in nearly every category.

Still, no matter what Rask accomplishes on the ice on his own merit, any praise of the goalie must seemingly always be followed with the caveat that he plays in Julien’s defensive-focused system.

But now, Rask has an answer to anyone who ever wishes to call him a product of the Bruins’ system. It comes in the form of his bronze medal.

Rask started four of the six games played by Finland, a country in recent years known to be a goalie factory. Rask would have played five of the six games if not for a flu bug that cost him — and the Finns — a chance to beat Sweden and play for gold.

After a shaky start to the tournament, in which he allowed four goals in an 8-4 win over Austria, Rask shined on the international stage. He allowed just three goals in his other three starts, posting a shutout against the U.S. and allowing just two goals against the stacked Canadian team that eventually won gold.

By the end of the tournament, he owned a .938 save percentage and 1.73 goals-against average.

It was a small sample size, sure, but consider that only half of the defensive corps was made up of NHL players, then add on the talent level of the opponents, and what Rask did in Sochi proved beyond a doubt that he’s a remarkable goaltender in his own right.

For Rask, the struggle to gain complete recognition has been a two-headed monster. The “system goalie” tag has been present all along, along with the massive shadow left by the sudden departure of Tim Thomas two years ago.

The “system” was credited for some of Thomas’ success as well, but the system didn’t make diving stick saves or make incredible right to left moves for pad saves in overtime of playoff games, and the system didn’t get its name etched onto the Conn Smythe Trophy. Thomas did that, and he earned it, and most pundits, fans and analysts were able to give Thomas the credit he deserved after that Stanley Cup win.

It’s been tougher for Tuukka. Much of that had to do with the fact that he had to live up to the seemingly impossible standard of Thomas’ 2011 playoff run. Yet in what may be the most underreported story of all time, Rask actually posted stats that in some respects were better during last year’s run to a Cup loss. In 2011, Thomas posted a .940 save percentage, a 1.98 GAA and four shutouts. Last spring, Rask that same .940 save percentage to go along with a 1.88 GAA and three shutouts.

Goalie Save Percentage Goals-Against Average Shutouts W-L Record
Tim Thomas, 2011 .940 1.98 4 16-9
Tuukka Rask, 2013 .940 1.88 3 14-8

The difference, obviously, is that Thomas’ 2011 campaign ended with a shutout in Game 7 of the Finals, while Rask’s 2013 ended with an on-ice disaster to lose to Chicago. But when looking at the complete package, Rask did an equal if not better job than Thomas.

At this point, though, leftover images of Thomas creep farther out of view, and Rask’s eight-year, $56 million contract signed in the offseason certainly helps the evaporation of that shadow. Putting on a goaltending clinic on an Olympic stage, without the help of Zdeno Chara and the rest of the Black and Gold, should help reduce the “system goalie” limitations that have always stuck to his name.

Nothing can be “proven,” per se, in a four-game sample size. But by winning bronze for Finland and standing up to some of the most high-powered offenses in the world, Rask displayed a special type of excellence that shouldn’t be discounted by anything. He is a system unto himself, and he’s made it clear by now that if you’re debating whether it’s Rask or Claude’s system that keeps the puck out of the net, you just can’t have one without the other.

Tuukka Rask (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Tuukka Rask (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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