By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — I’m not sure how, exactly, it happened, but somewhere along the way in the past week or two, Tuukka Rask became a scapegoat.

It’s weird.

He let in a pair of bad goals and five overall in a game when his teammates were just as bad if not worse. It was a team-wide failure in that 6-3 loss, one where they left multiple Lightning forwards unaccounted for in front of the net, one where they allowed a 4-on-2 rush, and one where they turned the puck over at their own blue line due to nothing but carelessness. They blew three separate one-goal leads. It was a mess.

Rask, having played three games in four nights and having worked through minor injuries since October, was gassed. And so he and the team deemed it best for him to rest and stay home on Saturday instead of traveling to Brooklyn, where he’d likely just be the backup anyway.

Considering if the Bruins are going to do anything at all in the postseason, it makes sense to try to keep Rask somewhat healthy if possible. This really wasn’t a controversial move. Rask is, after all, tied for third-most starts among NHL goalies, and he’s likely to finish near his career high of 67 starts. Every netminder, no matter the salary, needs a night off on occasion. That it made sense to save him the trouble of traveling in order to rest should not really have inspired panic in the streets.

Yet, perhaps the “optics” were bad, and as a result, Boston blew its top. Fans, media loudmouths, and maybe even a few nice people quickly lit their torches aflame and raised their pitchforks to the sky: He tapped out! He quit on the team! He’s got no fight!

Switch to decaf, folks.

These are the same people who are still furious that Rask didn’t step onto the ice last year while he was in this condition:

The same people who believe one can “tough it out” and still be able to compete at a high level in the greatest hockey league in the world. These people probably don’t have enough respect for the talent level in the NHL and how difficult it is to perform even when one is at full health, let alone when one is creating physical puddles around him.

They’ve also likely been too sick to go to work at least once in their lives.

But I digress. Rask has “bounced back” from taking a night off by stopping 52 of 53 shots over a two-game span, winning both, posting a shutout in the second. He’s looked like … the goalie he usually is. Because he’s very good.

The shutout was his seventh of the season. That ties a career high for Rask. It puts him one behind Braden Holtby for the NHL lead this season. Hey, last year, seven shutouts by Corey Crawford represented the most in the NHL for the entire year. Same thing with 2013-14, when seven shutouts by none other than Rask himself were the most among NHL goaltenders for the whole season.

And since the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Rask now has the second-most shutouts in the entire NHL with 26, just two fewer than Holtby.

That would indicate that Rask is a pretty good goaltender, no? Though if you need to be convinced of such a thing, there’s probably no hope at this point.

But I will try, and I will try with this. How can I make this stand out enough? Let’s see, perhaps a large font:

When Tuukka Rask gives up two or fewer goals, the Bruins are 24-6-1.

Basically, when Rask performs like the best goaltender in the league (currently only one full-time netminder has a GAA under 2.00), the Bruins win most of the time.

And here’s part two:

When Tuukka Rask gives up more than two goals, the Bruins are 11-15-3.

That is to say, if Rask is anything short of excellent, the Bruins lose much more often than they win. When Rask allows more than two goals, the Bruins win at a pace that would have them finishing the year with 73 points.

(Bookkeeping: You might have noticed that the combined record of those scenarios is 35-21-4, while Rask’s overall record is 35-20-4. That’s because he was pulled in Toronto on Feb. 4, and the Bruins came back to tie the game, only to later lose. He also left a January game after taking a shot to the neck in the first period. I’ve left that game out of consideration because he faced just three shots and stopped them all.)

You know what, that one’s getting the bold treatment, too:

The pace at which the Bruins win when Tuukka Rask allows more than two goals would have them finish the season with 73 points.

Some insider info: 73 points is bad. They’d be neck-and-neck with New Jersey right now in the battle for the worst record in the conference.

And you look at that, and you see the Bruins’ place in the standings, clinging to the second wild card with 88 points but still in the hunt in the Atlantic, and you realize that forty-nine of their 88 standings points came in games when Rask was exceptional in net.

They’re 7-0-0 in his shutouts (obviously), and they’re 15-2-0 in games when he allows just one goal.

So condensing this even further:

The Bruins have amassed 44 of their 88 points — exactly half — when Rask has allowed 1 or fewer goal, which he’s done in 40 percent of his starts this year.

Any way you slice it, that is a ridiculously underappreciated level. And it — along with Brad Marchand’s and David Pastrnak’s scoring assault — is precisely why the Bruins are currently in position to make the postseason.

Given the results the Bruins have had whenever a goaltending performance has been worse — and given that the trio of Anton Khudobin, Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban has allowed two or fewer goals in just six of their 16 combined starts — it is more than fair to say that the Bruins would not even be sniffing playoff contention if not for Tuukka Rask.

There’s no other way to put it.

Well, unless you make it huge:

The Bruins would not even be sniffing playoff contention if not for Tuukka Rask.

Look, Rask had a bad month of January. He tends to have one bad month per season. It might have had something to do with the migraine he suffered mid-game in Pittsburgh or the shot to the neck that took him out of a game. Or, it might not have had anything to do with either incident. Regardless, he performed poorly … and the Bruins not coincidentally were not very good. They went 6-6-2. That’s what happens to this Bruins team when the goaltender doesn’t perform at a high level. (A 6-6-2 record extrapolated for a full season comes out to 82 points in the standings over 82 games. Which is not good. In fact, it is bad.)

He had a better month of Feburary — the Bruins went 5-2-0 when he started.

And he’s had a pretty good March, getting his save percentage back over .900 and keeping his GAA at 2.53. Those aren’t the All-Star caliber numbers he posted in his first 32 starts (.928 save percentage, 1.93 GAA, 20-9-3 record), but they are on the uptick.

And, frankly, people have been a little bit too hung up on the numbers. If you break down the goals scored like the ones in last week’s Lightning loss, and many others, you see that the puck entering the net is not always the fault of the goaltender.

It’s just a strange phenomenon, really, because the moment — the moment — Rask slips up in the least, the fingers start pointing. The pitchforks come out. That’s part of the job when the goaltender makes $7 million, I suppose. But that doesn’t make it an intelligent response.

And calling for Anton Khudobin to start more often down the critical stretch of the year? Come on now. Be better than The Gap.

The reality of the situation is that Rask has carried the Bruins to a large majority of the team’s wins. He has “picked them up,” as they say. And when he’s played average or worse, his teammates have not often “picked him up.” The numbers bear this all out.

So, for the sake of hammering this point home, let’s go to a neat, simple list. Should I bold it, too? I’ll bold it. Maybe I’ll underline some parts as well:

–Rask has allowed one or fewer goals in 24 of his 60 starts. The Bruins are 22-2-0 in those games.

–Rask has allowed two or fewer goals in 31 of his 60 starts. The Bruins are 24-6-1 in those games.

–Rask has allowed more than two goals in 29 of his 60 starts. The Bruins are 11-15-3 in those games.

–Khudobin, McIntyre and Subban have allowed fewer than two goals in six of their 16 starts. The Bruins are 6-8-2 when they start games.

Could Rask have played better hockey at times this year? Undoubtedly. He would tell you that too. He’s not anywhere near the Vezina conversation because of it.

But to focus solely on the save percentage is to ignore the fact that his best defenseman is 40 years old, that the 5-foot-9 Torey Krug has logged the most minutes among D-men, that Brandon Carlo ranks third among minutes for D-men in his age 19/20 season. To focus on Rask’s declining save percentage numbers over the years is to ignore the fact that the Bruins have not had a defenseman make an All-Star team since 2012, and they haven’t had a defensive All-Star not named Zdeno since … 2004.

Simply put, Rask is one of the few players on the Bruins roster who possesses world-class talent. He has not displayed that world-class talent in 100 percent of his starts this year, but he has displayed that world-class talent in more than half. And if he had done any worse in any of those starts, it would be the Bruins chasing the Lightning and Hurricanes in the standings, instead of it being the other way around.

Much like the Bruins through much of this season, the defense rests.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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