By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — By most every possible metric and measurement but one, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the best hockey team on the ice through the first 40 minutes on Tuesday night.
That one spot, though, was a big one. It was the scoreboard. And the sole reason it displayed a 2-1 deficit for the visiting team was because Boston netminder Tuukka Rask was, quite simply, the best player on the ice.
The 32-year-old Rask entered Tuesday’s game with a worse-than-spotty history when playing in Game 7’s, to the tune of a 2-2 record, .845 save percentage and 3.72 goals-against average. The talk on sports radio on the way to the game focused largely on whether the team might try to trade the goalie if he flopped in this Game 7, as well as discussion regarding when head coach Bruce Cassidy might pull the trigger to go to backup Jaroslav Halak in this winner-take-all affair.
But Cassidy would never even need to contemplate such a decision, as Rask was dynamite from the opening faceoff until the final horn.
That was evident early, when Rask turned aside a point-blank one-time big from Auston Matthews, who entered this game as the leading goal scorer of the series.
“When he makes a save like that, you feel it, because it can easily sway momentum and then they’re feeling good. But he shuts them down, it can kind of deflate them a little bit,” Charlie Coyle said. “So that’s why those saves are so huge, and he did it a lot tonight.”
Minutes later, Rask stopped a bid from Mitch Marner, who wreaked havoc with two goals in a Game 1 win for Toronto, and then protected his crease on a shot by Marner off the rebound.
A little more than two minutes after the consecutive saves on Marner, Joakim Nordstrom scored to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead. They’d hold that lead for the rest of the night.
That was, again, in large part due to the work of Rask, particularly in the second period. Though he did allow the always-dangerous John Tavares to beat him to the blocker side on a shot that came from the slot, Rask stopped 12 shots that period — two of which came during a Toronto power play — to keep the Bruins’ lead at 2-1 after a period where the Maple Leafs dominated possession and shot attempts.
Rask would make eight more saves in the third period, including two more on a Toronto power play and including a sliding toe save on Zach Hyman to prevent the Leafs from seizing any momentum just after Boston had taken a 3-1 lead.
For his effort, Rask earned First Star honors on a night where his team needed him to be great. With 32 saves, he was, and the Bruins are now moving on.
“Tuuks was tremendous,” said Patrice Bergeron, who deposited a buzzer-beating empty-netter to make the final score 5-1. “Some great saves in the first, but then they came back and he made some amazing saves. I thought we did a good job of trying to keep them on the outside for the most part, but that being said, they’re going to get some chances. They’re a good team. We’ve relied on Tuukks all year, and again he was there for us.”
Obviously, a goalie can’t win a game on his own. To secure that win, the Bruins got goals from Joakim Nordstrom, Marcus Johansson and Sean Kuraly, before Charlie Coyle and Bergeron scored empty-netters. Rask also got loads of help from the skaters in front of him, as the Bruins blocked 17 shots on the evening. (Charlie McAvoy led the way with five blocked shots.)
Still, anything but a spectacular performance from the goaltender on this night, and the story might have been very different for Boston.
“I think that in the second, they created a lot of momentum, a lot of chances. They were putting a lot of pucks on the net, in the slot, a lot of shots, rebounds, and I thought he was in good position and controlling the rebounds and the shots,” Chara said. “I thought that he was obviously a difference maker.”
Cassidy was asked if it would be an overstatement to say that the goaltender kept his team in the game during that second period.
“No, that’s not overstating it,” Cassidy replied. “I think that’s accurate.”
Cassidy later added: “It’s a big Game 7 win, and like I said, I believe he was our best player.”
Defenseman Brandon Carlo admitted that the second period was not the Bruins’ best in terms of defensive execution. Rask prevented it from hurting too badly on the scoreboard.
“Phenomenal, especially in the second period,” Carlo said of the goaltender. “We had a couple breakdowns there and he did a phenomenal job of helping us out and getting us out of that situation. But, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him.”
Rask finished the series with a .928 save percentage and 2.32 GAA, besting counterpart Frederik Andersen, who posted a .922 save percentage and 2.75 GAA.
As is the case with sports, Tuesday’s performance will only be remembered until the next game. And for the Bruins, that won’t be long, as they’ll open the second round of the playoffs against Columbus exactly 48 hours after dropping the puck on this Game 7. Rask will have his hands full when that series begins, as he allowed seven goals on 58 shots against the Blue Jackets this season, good for an .879 save percentage and a 4.76 GAA. And with the Jackets averaging 4.75 goals per game in their first-round sweep of the historically great Lightning, the task ahead for Tuukka is tall.
But it would be hard for the goaltender to have gained more of a confidence boost than the one he worked to earn on Tuesday night. That confidence will surely extend to his teammates, too.
“How can you not love him? I mean, he’s a battler,” Coyle said. “He battles and he hates to lose. And I think you love playing for a guy like that and with a guy like that.”