By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — To state the obvious, the Bruins have a goaltender controversy.
But the nature of the controversy might not exactly be what you’re thinking.
If Tuukka Rask proved anything Sunday in a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, it’s that the Bruins have two goaltenders worthy of playing, as opposed to the idea that Anton Khudobin should be the No. 1 and Rask should start paying rent at the end of the Boston bench.
So now the major controversy is which goaltender will Bruce Cassidy tab to start each night, a decision that could be a defining moment in his tenure as Bruins coach.
Let’s face it, Rask can’t catch a break right now, but he’s not the reason the Bruins have lost his past four starts. During his losing streak, the Bruins have scored seven goals. In Khudobin’s four-game winning streak, the Bruins scored 11 goals (not including the shootout win/goal at New Jersey).
Khudobin gave up a game-tying goal while on his back with the puck on his stomach, and the Bruins answered back with the game-winning goal on Friday against the Penguins; they scored four against the defending Stanley Cup champs. Against the slumping Oilers, the Bruins scored twice; the Oilers scored one goal off defenseman Charlie McAvoy’s skate and another while Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo were watching Drake Caggiula skate instead of challenging game-winning-goal scorer Ryan Strome between the circles.
Rask finished Sunday with 32 saves, including several tough stops with the Oilers’ legion of power forwards crashing the net with and without the puck. Rask shook off the rust of having not played in a game in 11 days and stopped the first 14 shots he faced, as the Bruins were a gear behind the Oilers through the first two periods. The Bruins knew they were letting their goaltender down.
“Yeah, honestly, after two periods and the shots are 27 to 10, it’s probably not looking that way, I think it’s when a pitcher goes out there and pitches his heart out and the other guys just can’t get any runs from him. I think that’s the way it’s going for us right now,” Bruins forward Riley Nash said. “He’s playing so well and playing hard and it’s just a battle to really give him anything for whatever reason, so obviously I feel bad for him because he probably deserved a better outcome tonight.”
Of course, Rask isn’t without fault. The bad bounces keep going against him and at least once a game he makes a mistake that costs him. In this case he made two errors, on the 14th and 15th shots he faced, allowing the Oilers to tie the game 1-1.
After Rask failed to control the rebound of a Mark Letestu shot on the rush, Krug blindly threw the puck up the zone for Zack Kassian to intercept it. Kassian made a slap pass and Patrick Maroon buried a wrist shot through the short side.
“I started to cheat right after he got the puck and it made the ribs and went in,” Rask admitted.
Rask didn’t blame his teammates for the way the rest of the night went, as they went long stretches without threatening to score and then left Strome wide-open for a third-period snipe that was the difference in the game. Rask also refrained from bragging about his game, limiting his assessment to the word “good” several times. He said he felt fine. He commended Khudobin for his “unbelievable” play of late. And when it came to the unknown date of his next start, Rask refrained from allowing even a slight peak into his psyche at this point.
“I don’t know; it doesn’t feel like anything,” Rask when asked about uncertainty about his playing time. “Work hard every day, and when you play, try to give your team a chance. That’s it.”
Cassidy did little to alleviate the uncertainty.
“We can of course [start Rask in the next game]. We generally don’t announce that this far ahead of time,” the coach said. “Tuukka, he’s a world-class goaltender. He’s going to get his wins. Hopefully whoever is in there Wednesday, we are going to get a good chance to win. We have a good hockey team coming in here, so we’ll rest for the day and then get back to work Tuesday. We’ll have a better idea then.”
This controversy isn’t a debate about the quality of the Bruins’ two goaltenders, unless you think Khudobin is going to play .932 save percentage the rest of this season and beyond. It’s about bad bounces and thin margins of error. It’s about sheer coincidence that on some nights the Bruins, who average 2.68 goals per game (26th in the NHL), score three or more and some nights they score fewer goals than their average. It’s about keeping confidence high, for both the goaltenders and for the players in front of them. Right now it doesn’t seem like there’s a crisis of confidence, so there shouldn’t be a crisis of goaltending.
If the Bruins divide their goaltender playing time more evenly, as long as both guys are playing the way they’ve played the past month, it will only help them continue to weather the injury storm and stay in playoff contention.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.