By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy crossed the red line, but referee Francois St. Laurent prevented him from joining the fracas that his Bruins counterpart Tuukka Rask had just sparked midway through the second period Thursday.
St. Laurent probably did Vasilevskiy a favor.
Rask is known for being at his best when he’s calm in net, but he can also have a temper that sometimes results in clumsy self-punishment, equipment destruction and the abuse of milk crates. The Bruins benefited from a little bit of both sides of Rask’s personality in their 4-2 win against the Lightning at TD Garden.
“I wasn’t thinking that obviously,” Rask said in response to a question about his double-minor for roughing, which could’ve cost the Bruins. “I don’t do it too often, I guess.”
Rask tried to play coy after the game, but he seemed to know what he was doing during the interaction on the ice. Rask, who after the game said he got fed up because a player had landed on his leg earlier in the game, was wise to mostly use his catching glove to rattle crease-invader Cory Conacher. Before his teammates jumped on Conacher, Rask used his blocker to jab a couple times at the opponent, but not violently enough to earn the match penalty that could have come if the officials determined he was using the blocker with intent to injure.
Because Vasilevskiy ventured to the Boston side of the ice, the Bruins actually wound up with a power play. And if any player in black and gold wasn’t already fired up during this emotional game that ended with the Bruins one point ahead of Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, Rask had lit their fuse.
“Yeah, Tuukka actually fired me up, as soon as I saw him running around in the second period,” said Bruins forward David Pastrnak, whose first NHL fight in the third period was the second part of his Gordie Howe Hat Trick. “So I was like, oh I guess it’s my time now.”
Rask’s extracurricular responsibilities weren’t done with his altercation with Conacher. With 5.8 seconds left and the Bruins protecting their two-goal lead, Rask again had to leave his crease because the Bruins were outnumbered in a scrum near the half-wall with the Lightning featuring an extra skater while Vasilevskiy was on the bench. This one didn’t require any Rask swings, as it was quickly defused.
For years Rask’s teammates have sung his praises as the most un-goalie of goalies – no weird superstitions or refusals to mingle with his compadres at or away from the rink. Rask’s one of the guys, and it’s worked for him because they know they can rely on him to make crucial saves and they have his back when he has an off night or needs protection.
Although they may not have needed him to channel his close friend Shawn Thornton during the second period, the Bruins needed him to help extinguish the Lightning’s potent offense. And for the most part, he did that.
The Lightning’s first goal was a backdoor tip-in that only he’s expected to save because, after all, he makes $7 million and should never give up a goal, according to some critics. After the Bruins went up 3-1, Victor Hedman beat Rask with a shot that went off the goalie’s arm, and should have been stopped, to cut the lead back to one. Rask didn’t need sport-radio squawkers to tell him it was a bad goal, as his look-to-the-heavens reaction proved.
But those who’d rather focus on the one bad goal on a night the Bruins were able to afford because they scored four times against the Lightning, are too quick to dismiss the difficult saves that Rask makes look easy because of his superior positional play. One period after going off on Conacher, Rask calmly made up for Hedman’s goal with game-saving stops on Nikita Kucherov point blank to the right of the crease and Ryan McDonagh, who blasted a shot from the high slot.
In the early moments of the game, when the Lightning had a little more jump than the Bruins, Rask stood his ground to keep the game at 0-0. In the second period, the Lightning outshot the Bruins 11-3 and Rask made 10 saves with only Miller’s tip getting past him.
For those so worried about Rask in the playoffs, here he was once again playing in what for all intents and purposes was a postseason tilt. He helped carry the Bruins to victory.
Rask not only helped the Bruins rise to the top of the conference, he sent a message to the Lightning and the rest of the league about trying to push the Bruins around. The Winnipeg Jets tried similar tactics on Tuesday, and without Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Rick Nash and Sean Kuraly in the lineup, the Bruins have found it difficult to respond. David Backes’ return Thursday helped up the Bruins’ physicality level, but the Lightning were still taking liberties.
Rask showed that the Bruins aren’t going to be pushed around, and had the type of game in net that’s made him one of the top five goaltenders in the NHL the past three or four months.
Opponents that believe they have to crash the net to get to Rask should be aware: he’s not ruling out brawling again if the need arises.
“It’s impossible to say, but as I said, whatever I feel out there, try and protect yourself. Stuff happens in the heat of the moment,” Rask said. “Hopefully I don’t start doing that every game. I have to go have a couple beers now and cool off.”
Those beers were well-earned.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.