By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — David Pastrnak finally busted the slump. Patrice Bergeron injected life into a troublesome power-play unit. Sean Kuraly did Sean Kuraly things.
All of these things contributed in a major way to the Bruins’ 4-1 win on Thursday to even up their second-round playoff series at two games apiece before it heads back to Boston. Goals are, quite obviously, a significant factor in winning hockey games.
But make no mistake about it: The Bruins won this game because of the man who stands between the pipes, a man who stopped every single shot sent his way during game play where the puck remained in the rink at all times, and a man who by and large carried his team for the bulk of play at this critical juncture of the season.
The win was all about Tuukka Rask.
In a series where Sergei Bobrovsky has been the No. 1 story, Rask may have leapfrogged his counterpart with a truly masterful performance in Columbus.
Rask, who’s long been a target of fans’ and media’s ire during his tenure in Boston, has long served as a lightning rod for debate among most hockey followers in Boston. Those who note that he’s statistically one of the best goaltenders in NHL history, both in the regular season and the playoffs, are referred to as “Rask defenders.” Those who’ve remained doubtful of Rask’s abilities because he’s never led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup title often remark that the netminder never “steals a game” for the Bruins in big moments.
But if Thursday’s performance doesn’t qualify as stealing a game, nothing will.
The final scoreboard didn’t show it, but Tuukka Rask was reasons No. 1, 2 and 3 for the Bruins to even be in position to win the game in the third period.
Rask had to make 14 saves in the opening period, three of which came on shorthanded attempts from Columbus, and one of which came on a penalty shot from Boone Jenner.
Bergeron scored on the power play 26 seconds later. The swing from a potential 1-1 score to a 2-0 lead was, to say the least, immense.
Rask did allow one goal in the first period, though it should not have counted. After Rask made a save on Pierre-Luc Dubois, the puck deflected up and out of play over the glass behind the net. Nobody could find the puck — including the four on-ice officials, who allowed for play to continue. The Blue Jackets took full advantage, with Oliver Bjorkstrand finding a wide-open Artemi Panarin for a one-time goal.
Cutting the Bruins’ lead in half, the Blue Jackets had life. Little did they know that nothing else was getting past Rask on this night.
Shortly after the Panarin goal, the Bruins gave up yet another breakaway while on the power play; Rask once again denied Jenner, this time with a shoulder save.
On the Bruins’ next power play … they gave up a 2-on-1 rush. Rask again made another save, once again on Jenner.
Had any one of those shorthanded opportunities found the net in the first period, it could have been a deflating blow for the visiting Bruins, who trailed 2-1 in the series entering the night and would have been dealing with a raucous crowd while staring down the barrel of a 3-1 deficit. Rask prevented any of that scenario from becoming reality.
Second period, midway point: Rask stopped Josh Anderson then deftly turned aside a Jenner rebound bid.
On yet another shorthanded 2-on-1 opportunity for Columbus in the second, Rask made another save. On Jenner again. (Jenner had six frustrating shots on net in this game.)
And on — yes — another shorthanded bid from Columbus, Nick Foligno got a shot on net from a highly dangerous spot, right in front of the net. Rask made the save.
In total, the Blue Jackets landed a preposterous six shorthanded shots on goal. Rask stopped all of them preventing a massive shift of momentum from going against his team.
Later in the second, with the Bruins clinging to that 2-1 lead, Rask kept his eyes on a Dubois point shot that changed directions off Charlie McAvoy’s skate, calmly kicking the puck into the corner to keep the lead intact.
That period ended with Rask mixing it up with Dubois, getting in the forward’s face and laughing about it as the buzzer sounded.
That interaction was perhaps a sign that the laser focus would continue in the third period. It certainly was evident when Rask was in position to save a deflection off the stick of Zach Werenski in the third period, before casually turning aside another Werenski offering seconds later.
Judging a player by how he looks can be a dangerous game. But when Rask is on, it’s evident. On this night, from the moment the puck dropped until the final buzzer, Rask looked as dialed in as he’s been in a long time — perhaps back in that 2013 postseason when he completely stifled a dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins team in a four-game sweep.
With just under six minutes to play, and with the Bruins now leading 3-1, Rask prevented the Blue Jackets from making it interesting by kicking away a Cam Atkinson slapper with the right toe. That was one of five saves Rask made against Atkinson, who scored 41 goals in the regular season. One more save on Bjorkstrand with 4:43 left to play essentially ended Rask’s workload for the evening, as Boston went on a power play shortly thereafter and scored the putaway fourth goal.
But, again, don’t get confused by the 4-1 final score. This win was about the goaltender.
“Goalies get hot this time of year. Tuukka played great, and we’d love him to stay hot,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “But to rely on your goalie to win every night, or to win games for you, I think is bad form in the long run. It’s a team effort. He certainly did his part — and more — tonight.”
Throughout the course of his entire postseason career, surely Rask has “stolen a game” from time to time. He’s never finished the deal the way his predecessor, Tim Thomas, did, and that’s likely why he’s gotten so much flak from so many angles over the years.
So at the very least, at the risk of being labeled a “defender,” it’s worth saying: Tuukka Rask stole this game. (Just like he did in Game 7 vs. Toronto.)
It won’t go down as his greatest playoff performance ever; the 39 saves ranks as merely the seventh-highest total he’s compiled in any postseason game. He once stopped 59 Chicago shots in a triple overtime loss, stopped 53 Pittsburgh shots in a double overtime win, and 45 Toronto shots (in 2013) in a regulation win. Thursday was the 22nd time (in 76 starts) that Rask has allowed one goal or fewer in a playoff game, and it was his 41st postseason victory, ranking him second all-time in Bruins franchise history, behind only Gerry Cheevers. (Yes, Tim Thomas only has 29 playoff victories to his name.)
Thursday did not mark any significant change in the course of Rask’s career. But the nature of the game should at least garner it some added attention.
Tuukka Rask stole this game. It was a big one. And the Bruins have life.