By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins’ goaltending fire has been extinguished. For now, anyway.
Tuukka Rask enjoyed a successful night on Thursday — albeit against the second-worst offense in the NHL — when he stopped 20 of 21 shots sent his way. In doing so, the netminder earned his third straight win and continued his turnaround — a drastic improvement that followed one of the best stretches of backup Anton Khudobin’s entire career.
With Khudobin posting a 2.22 goals-against average and .932 save percentage through Thanksgiving weekend, and with Rask starting the year with a 3-7-2 record and a sub-.900 save percentage, the pressure was on the $7.5 million man to stop the skid and solidify his spot in the crease for a team with playoff aspirations.
Through four starts — and five appearances — he’s done just that.
Though he took the loss to Edmonton on Nov. 26 (a game in which the Bruins registered 10 shots on net through 40 minutes), that night marked the beginning of Rask’s current steady stretch. In his last five games, Rask has posted a .940 save percentage and a 1.55 GAA.
That stretch has included the stopping of 19 of 21 shots against the Lightning, who lead the league in goals per game, as well as a shutout in Philadelphia.
While the 6-1 final score on Thursday night indicates the game was a laugher, the reality is the game was tied after the first period and remained a one-goal game until the final minute of the second period. The floodgates opened in the third, but head coach Bruce Cassidy credited Rask for allowing the Bruins to be in that position, after it took the Bruins more than 10 minutes to register a shot on goal to start the second period.
“That’s where Tuukka deserves some credit tonight in those games,” Cassidy said. “It’s 6-1, you don’t ever look at the goalie, but it was 1-1, he needed to be there. He needed to be there for us because we don’t know we are going to get six. Good for him for stepping up in the second.”
Rask did get some help from his iron friends behind him, when Oliver Ekman-Larsson rang the post twice in a span of 10 seconds late in the third to keep the score at 4-1. But he also made saves when needed.
Notably, in the opening moments of the second period, he burst from his right to his left — almost too strong, actually — to deny an Anthony Duclair shot and maintain a 1-1 tie. He casually kept control of a number of shots, denying rebound opportunities (and contributing to Arizona’s low shot total). And Rask was still engaged during the waning moments of a comfortable victory, keeping himself in excellent position to quietly kick away Christian Fischer’s redirect bid late in the third:
It was a strong finish not dissimilar to Rask’s performance against the Lightning last week. In that game, he made an excellent right-to-left move to prevent the Lightning from heading into second intermission with all sorts of momentum:
He made a hyper-athletic reactionary toe save on a tipped shot in the final minutes to preserve a one-goal lead, while also managing to clear the puck out of danger:
Rask ended that game by leaving his crease to clear a puck out of the high slot to prevent a scoring opportunity from arising, and in doing so he secured his first victory in a string that’s now at three games.
It’s a modest run, to be sure, and Rask has a long way to go in order to live up to being the player that he should be. His save percentage on the season is still at just .908, and his GAA is up at 2.52. Overall, that’s not where he needs to be, but the returns lately are at least encouraging.
In Boston — and probably in most NHL cities, to be fair — talking about the starting goaltender can often be like talking about politics. It’s often not worth the headache. That reality is somewhat a function of the sport; the goaltender generally receives too much credit during runs of success and too much blame on the downturns. It’s not unlike a quarterback in football, though a goaltender can’t influence a game nearly as much as a quarterback can.
And that’s why the strangest criticism of Rask this year has been that the team has not played well in front of him and seemed to play better in front of Khudobin. How that became the fault of Rask is certainly questionable (nobody around here was blaming Tom Brady when the Patriots’ defense was struggling), but it nevertheless became the running narrative. In the past week or so, though, that’s changed, with the Bruins outscoring opponents 15-8, only losing the game in Nashville, which Khudobin started.
To be extraordinarily clear, Rask has not been great this season. But what got lost in the Khudobin-Rask arguments was the fact that Rask was, indeed, a great goaltender for the first six seasons of his career. He became just the third Bruins goaltender since goalies began wearing masks to win the Vezina Trophy. He became the NHL’s all-time leader in save percentage, though he now trails Dominik Hasek by one-ten-thousandth of a point.
And while Rask never got to hoist the Stanley Cup as a starting goaltender, his 2013 postseason performance (14-8 record, .940 save percentage, 1.88 GAA) was almost identical to Tim Thomas’s 2011 postseason run (16-9, .940 save percentage, 1.98 GAA). The major difference, of course, was that the Blackhawks didn’t collapse under the weight of the moment like the Canucks did. (Those who’ve held the belief that Rask choked in the waning moments of Game 6 likely have not watched the goals since they took place.)
Yet it often seems as though Rask is in a no-win situation. If he performs well, then he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing. If he struggles, then he should be benched or traded immediately. There’s not much balance.
Such is the life of a goaltender who signs a big-money contract in a city with fans who have undergone a rough transition from watching a Cup-contending team to watching a team that’s been rebuilding on the fly. Considering the defensive pairs that have were rolled out in front of him in the last three years, it was a fair thought to wonder if a team in such a position needed to dedicate so much of the salary cap to a goaltender when the team was clearly so far away from contention.
Yet, with a playoff berth last season, and with the Bruins looking like they once again belong in the postseason, they have essentially emerged from the nadir to at least be in the mix. They may be a full step (or two) below the real Cup contenders, but they can at the very least compete with the best.
And while the rise of Khudobin was most unexpected, it worked as a net positive for the Bruins — provided Rask can maintain an elite level of play through the end of the year. Khudobin’s seven wins this year (through just 26 games on the schedule) already match his win total from last season, and if he can contribute with a dozen victories, it will be the most games a backup goaltender has won for the Bruins since Chad Johnson won 14 games in 2013-14. It was no coincidence that Rask won his Vezina and received Hart votes that year, when the Bruins had the luxury of only having to start him 58 times.
Assuming Rask doesn’t once again find himself watching Khudobin starting four straight games, he’ll likely end up starting 55 or so games. He hasn’t been able to do that since that Vezina-winning season, and while he’s pretty much already out of the running for this year’s award, the Bruins at least have to like the spot they’re in with a capable backup who can keep Rask from getting run down.
The temporary benching of Rask amid an uncharacteristically hot streak from Khudobin undoubtedly injected some uncertainty into the Bruins’ goaltending situation. But with Rask now finally looking like Rask, the Bruins appear to much better off for having gone through it.