By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — What a difference four games can make. Tuukka Rask faced the wrath of the City of Boston two weeks ago after allowing two soft goals in an ugly 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, then sitting out the next game against the New York Islanders. Much of the criticism was deserved – but in the past four games, it has largely disappeared.
No, Rask has not quite “silenced his critics” or “answered” those who rip him on a regular basis. Not definitively. But it’s virtually impossible to deny the impact he’s had on the ice for the Bruins in his last four starts. When Rask has been out there, he’s been – dare I say – the Bruins’ best player.
Since that March 23 dud, Rask is 4-0 with two shutouts, the latest coming in something of a redemption win on Tuesday night against the Lightning. Since March 23, he leads the NHL in both goals against average (0.75) and save percentage (.972) among goalies with at least three starts in that span. It’s a small sample size, but also a supremely important stretch of games.
Rask’s detractors like to shove his cumulative stats in your face; he’s still just 17th in GAA and 14th in save percentage among goalies with at least 50 starts on the season. It’s fair to do so. But many of those same people would say he “doesn’t show up in big games.” He’s certainly had his share of downs in those moments – but in the last four games, all virtual must-wins, Rask has played some of his best hockey of the season.
You can’t have it both ways.
Rask started his turnaround a week ago with a 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators. It was a relatively easy affair with arguably zero “hard” saves, but he was certainly as good as he needed to be. In his next win two days later, a shutout over the Dallas Stars, he had to overcome some sloppy defense in front of him – but it’s fair to note that the Stars weren’t exactly at their best that day, either.
Last Saturday against the Florida Panthers was when the Bruins genuinely couldn’t have held onto the two points without Rask’s play. The Panthers pinned the Bruins back in their own zone for much of the third period and constantly threatened to tie the game, but Rask was there to stop them all – none better than this un-Rask-like sprawling save to stuff a wrap-around attempt from Jonathan Huberdeau:
Then on Tuesday night against the Lightning, with the game still tied and the Bruins still killing Brad Marchand’s five-minute spearing major, Rask denied Ondrej Palat at the doorstep then stopped Victor Hedman from the point seconds later:
Not exactly eye-popping saves, but crucial at the time. More impressive for Rask was later in the period, with the Bruins up 1-0, when he stopped Luke Witkowski and Joel Vermin in succession with the Bruins defense looking vulnerable:
Tuesday night wasn’t all about Rask, though. It was a strong overall team effort (save for Marchand’s selfishness), and Rask was quick to compliment his teammates when he spoke to reporters after the game.
“It’s always nice to get a shutout as a goalie, obviously, but I think it just tells how we played as a team the whole 60 minutes,” said Rask. “We started off great. [Tampa Bay] had nothing in the first [period], and even on that power play [in the second] they only had two shots or something. We did a tremendous job and we got the lead with some nice goals. Overall, just a great effort from top to bottom.”
The Bruins were better on Tuesday night than they were in other recent games, but Rask has been strong in net for almost the entirety of the team’s six-game winning streak (honorable mention to Anton Khudobin’s 41-save performance against the Blackhawks on Sunday). If you’re one of Rask’s many critics, and you’re still not going to give him credit for what he’s done in his last four starts, then you’ll probably never be satisfied.
Sure, Rask may be overpaid. His recent performance may be “what a $7 million goalie is supposed to do.” But if you’re still going to say Rask never plays well in big games after the latest winning streak, which directly impacted the Bruins’ return to the playoffs, you probably won’t be happy unless he’s literally 2011 playoff Tim Thomas. And that’s simply not fair.
Rask still has work to do to really answer his detractors, and that includes a strong run in the playoffs. He can’t make up for all of his past failures in just four games. But you can thank Rask, in part, for bringing playoff hockey back to Boston in the first place. Like him or not, the Bruins may not have made the playoffs without him.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.