By Matt Kalman
The Bruins are headed to Brooklyn again, and this time they’re bringing Tuukka Rask with them.
And they’d have to be nuts not to ride Rask’s hot hand against the New York Islanders on Tuesday. Coach Bruce Cassidy already announced Rask will get the start.
During a streak of 11 straight starts with at least one point (10-0-1) for the Bruins, Rask has climbed the ranks of NHL goaltenders and now ranks second in goals-against average (2.13) and seventh in save percentage (.923) among goalies who have played 15 or more games this season.
“Lately the bounces have gone my way too, so that helps,” the understated Rask said after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Monday.
Rask has come a long way since he was left home for the Bruins’ road trip to Brooklyn for a game last March 25. He was on a personal four-game losing streak when the Bruins decided it was time for Rask to rest the groin injury that had bothered him since the World Cup of Hockey and would require surgery in the offseason.
The move paid off twofold, as Anton Khudobin was spectacular in a 2-1 win and Rask returned to form after taking four days off. He allowed four goals in his next five games to help the Bruins end their two-year playoff drought. He had a .920 save percentage in the six-game first-round loss to Ottawa.
“If you look at in a way, it’s a must-win game, so obviously you wanted to be there,” Rask recalled about the Islanders game. “But that wasn’t the case, they decided to keep me home and recover at home because I wasn’t going to play anyways. I wouldn’t look at it as a low point. If you’re not healthy enough to play, why would you go there?”
However, Rask had deemed himself healthy enough, and the Bruins seemingly agreed, throughout his struggles. To finally decide that Rask’s performance, be it affected by injury or otherwise, wasn’t at a level worthy of being considered to even back up for a late-season game against an Eastern Conference foe was at least a shock to the system for those used to watching the Bruins lean on their $7 million man night in and night out.
Rask will now face the Islanders as the hottest goalie in the League. But this season hasn’t been without its struggles. A three-game losing streak by Rask led Cassidy to ride Anton Khudobin’s hot hand for four straight games (all victories by the backup). Rask returned to the net Nov. 26 against Edmonton and lost a fourth straight decision. He hasn’t lost in regulation since.
Cassidy never left any doubt that Rask was still the No. 1 despite his slump.
“I think you need a bigger body of work than a few games or a couple off weeks for Tuukka before you say ‘hey, we’ve got to make a wholesale change here,’” Cassidy explained Monday. “That’s just the way I felt. I think we communicated that with the goalies internally, goalie [coach] Bob [Essensa] talked to him every day about it. Just something we decided to do at the time. I think it’s worked out well for both.”
Cassidy said he detected a change in Rask’s demeanor while Khudobin was stealing playing time. The coach “could see the passion was there, he wanted the net back.”
Rask expressed gratitude Monday that his coach had faith in him when things were going south but the Finn repelled the insinuation that he’d gotten comfortable before Cassidy’s decision to sit him like he has so many shots in the weeks since. Rask may not have the personality quirks of most goaltenders but he has the overflowing pride that allows him to bounce back from tough times but prevents him from admitting fallibility.
That trait is fine because in the long run it’s not going to matter how reflective he is; all that will matter is how he plays. Since not traveling to Brooklyn last season, Rask has a .931 save percentage and 1.88 GAA.
That’s the type of elite goaltender the Bruins can take anywhere in the League and the one that could continue to help the Bruins exceed all expectations of their young team this season.