By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Since Bruce Cassidy took over as Bruins coach last February, his team has tried to play at a quicker pace than under his predecessor.
Cassidy has empowered his players to take a gamble now and then rather than always lean toward the conservative play.
So it should’ve been no surprise that when it came time to select a starting goaltender for the Bruins’ showdown with the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, Cassidy was willing to take a risk.
And then Tuukka Rask made sure Cassidy looked like a genius.
Rask made 19 saves in a 3-2 Bruins win at TD Garden, his first win since Nov. 6 against the Minnesota Wild.
Although 19 saves may sound like an easy night, Rask was tested by one of the league’s most potent offenses, especially in the second and third period. Late in the second, Tyler Johnson broke in alone but Rask kept his shot out with his mask. Just before the end of the period, Nikita Kucherov, the league’s leading scorer, tested Rask with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle on a 3-on-2. But Rask preserved the Bruins’ lead.
Even when the Bruins were outshooting Tampa Bay 19-5 in the first period, pretty much all of the Lightning’s shots went through screens that Rask had to fight through to see the puck and make the save.
“I need it [the win]. I need it, but it was good to see, there was a post-and-out today [in the second period],” Rask said. “That’s always a positive. So, enjoy the little things I guess, because you know, so many times it hits my heel and goes in, and today it didn’t.”
A less courageous coach wouldn’t have let Rask get anywhere near the Lightning. He hadn’t won in nearly a month and enough bad bounces had gone his way to sink even the most boastful goaltender’s confidence. The Bruins played lackluster in front of Rask in a loss to Edmonton on Sunday, the way that had most of his three prior win-less starts.
Meanwhile, Anton Khudobin has been on fire. He’s 7-0-2 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He’s on a four-game winning streak and having him in the crease has made the Bruins skate with an extra spring in their steps.
A meeker coach would’ve avoided the criticism from the outside by going with Khudobin over Rask. In keeping with the Bruins’ meritocracy, no one would have blamed Cassidy for going that route and the risk of Rask being lit up by Tampa Bay’s firepower would’ve been avoided.
However, that’s not Cassidy’s style. He’s a coach that knows he’s not going to make a playoff run with just Khudobin as his goaltender. Cassidy and goalie coach Bob Essensa saw enough in Rask, through all the losing, to know the No. 1 goaltender was still in that No. 40 sweater. Cassidy was given a chance to declare the goaltender position “up for grabs” on Tuesday, but he continued to refer to Rask as his No. 1 and commended Khudobin for playing better and pushing the Finn.
Given an opportunity to take a victory lap for his decision Wednesday, Cassidy decided to not take a gamble and instead made sure to stress that for now the Bruins are a two-goaltender team, and that’s going to pay off come the stretch run.
“We need both goaltenders to be good for us to excel as a team,” Cassidy said. “Tuukka needs his reps as well. He’s a good goalie, we’ve said that all along, and tonight we got three for him, he made the big save – everything we talked about. He made those big saves and we got him the extra goal and he got the extra saves. So, you know, like I said, we get both goalies at the top of their game, we’re going to be a really good hockey club.”
With the coach showing confidence in him, the players in front of him figured they might as well help out Rask. They gave him his first lead since that last win when Charlie McAvoy scored 7:27 into the game. For Rask, getting a lead to work with must’ve felt like hitting a jackpot on a one-armed bandit. But he didn’t have time to celebrate because the Lightning weren’t going to relent.
“You just try to stay positive and focus and battle through it because you know they’re going to get opportunities, they’re a good team, it’s a good league,” Rask said. “So that’s really all it is is to stay focused when the shots come.”
The fast start didn’t last for 60 minutes. The Bruins were chasing the puck like the Washington Generals chasing the ball during a Harlem Globetrotters passing exhibition for much of the second half of the game. That’s when Rask rewarded the faith of his coaches and teammates and put on a performance reminiscent of some of his greatest games.
“Oh man, he was awesome. We believe in him so much. You ask any guy on this team, we believe in Tuukka,” McAvoy said. “And it’s a little bit of us not playing as good as we should in front of him, allowing him to not get as many wins as he deserves. But tonight he really played great hockey.”
There’s no telling which goaltender Cassidy’s going to put his money behind Saturday in Philadelphia or beyond that. But you better believe he’ll be willing to make an unpopular decision if it’ll mean the Bruins will be better in the long run. And you better believe Bruce Cassidy believes in Tuukka Rask.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.