By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Just because goaltender Tuukka Rask avoids the media criticism by not reading or listening to what’s being said about him doesn’t mean his teammates have to live in a cone of silence.
So after Rask made 24 saves in a crucial 4-1 win against the Nashville Predators at TD Garden on Tuesday, center David Krejci was the first teammate to congratulate Rask. And Krejci had a message to give the Finn.
“I just saw on NHL Network something not very nice they were saying about Tuukks,” Krejci told me before departing the Bruins’ dressing room. “And I just told him, way to step up and kind of shut them up pretty much.”
Rask shut up his critics and nearly shut out the Predators. Were it not for a Craig Smith tip-in at 11:16 of the third period, Rask would’ve kept the Predators off the scoreboard. But the shutout didn’t matter. What mattered was that Rask was healthy enough to play and with a lot on the line against a Predators team that helped out the Bruins by beating the New York Islanders on Monday, Rask looked playoff-ready.
The Bruins beat the Islanders 2-1 on Saturday without Rask, who stayed back in Boston for treatment for a lower-body injury. Considering the magnitude of that game (the Bruins and Islanders were tied for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference) and Rask’s absence from Boston’s regular-season finale against Ottawa a year ago because of sickness, many in the fan base and among the chattering class were accusing Rask of shying away from important games. For $7 million per season, they want Rask to be physically indestructible and impenetrable between the pipes.
The 30-year-old understands what it means to play in a hockey hotbed and how it can look when he has to battle injury or illness at inopportune times. But he knows the only way he can change people’s opinions is by playing up to the level he set for himself by winning the Vezina Trophy in 2014.
“What can you do? I can’t do anything about it, what people say,” Rask said. “I’m not staying home because I want to stay home, not playing because I don’t want to play. I don’t think any athlete ever does that. But obviously what’s happened in the past years, I missed a game, people are going to bring that up and talk about it. So that’s just the nature of media people, what they say.”
Talk is cheap and saves are how Rask makes his living. The Bruins blocked 25 shots, and Rask was quick to credit his teammates for that effort. But Rask made plenty of important stops, including an early pad save on a Ryan Johansen one-timer from the left hash mark through traffic.
In the third period he was 9-for-10 including a diving stop on Johansen in the slot. Although he’s known for his cool demeanor, Rask was a little more antsy than usual. He wasn’t as emphatic as backup Anton Khudobin, but Rask showed some rare spunk. That was appropriate considering how some people were translating coach Bruce Cassidy’s comments from Saturday about Khudobin’s “battling” as some sort of veiled slight against Rask.
Cassidy made it clear what he thought about Rask’s battle against the Predators.
“I loved it,” the coach said. “He really worked hard to find pucks in traffic, they created some good opportunities and even the goal against, he found it. They just tipped it at eye level, so it was going to be a tough one and we need to be better in the shooting lane on that one. But I thought he was terrific, very pleased with his performance.”
If you want an answer to questions about Rask’s battle, how about him cramping up with less than five minutes to go and staying in the game? That came about a minute after Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo pushed Nashville forward Kevin Fiala into Rask and caused a heavy collision. Rask carried on.
“He just poked me right in the head. So I just blacked out a little bit but you can’t stay down because they’re going to call those spotters and get you out of the game,” Rask said.
Nothing short of serious injury or illness was going to deny Rask from starting a game the Bruins desperately needed. And nothing, not even those pesky spotters, was going to stop him from being on the ice when the Bruins earned the two points that helped extend their lead in the wild card race.
“We needed it,” Rask said. “Personally I’ve lost four games, but I played a couple good games there and we just didn’t get the bounces. But we kind of got on the winning habit there on Long Island and me stepping in there I just wanted to make sure that I gave us a chance to win and the guys did the rest. It was a great team effort, I think, because we blocked a lot of shots, which is huge.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.