By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If there’s one thing people in this city love to death, it’s goalie talk. The folks just can’t get enough.
The reasons for that obsession are various, and they can’t all be known for sure. But it likely is at least somewhat tied in to the simplicity of the entire goaltending process. Hockey can be a bit of a chaotic mess, as 10 large adults speed around on a sheet of ice trying to steer a rubber puck into a 4×6 metal cage. And despite whatever madness ensues across the 17,000 square feet of ice, the entire game ultimately is decided by whether the man wearing all those pads can keep the puck out of the net.
In a world of pandemonium, the goaltender can provide order.
Philosophical theories aside, the fact is that people in Boston sure do spend a lot of time talking about the netminder. And thus far, through 12 playoff games, the netminder in Boston has done well to seize control of the narrative surrounding him this postseason.
While a pair of losses to end this second-round series would probably negate much of the positive headway Tuukka Rask has made in chipping away at the arguments of his detractors, we can’t yet see the future. So for now, with a critical Game 6 on tap for Monday night in Columbus, we can examine what Rask has done so far in the playoffs.
A quick look shows that he’s playing the best hockey of his playoff career. And yes, that includes his dynamic run in the playoffs of 2013. (People do recall that in 2013, Rask essentially matched Tim Thomas’ Conn Smythe-worthy 2011 postseason performance, just with a different team result and without a pair of Game 7 shutouts, yes? Yes.)
Here’s the raw data on Rask through 12 games this year:
Tuukka Rask, 2019 playoffs
.932 save percentage
.940 even-strength save percentage
Tuukka Rask, first 12 games of 2013 playoffs
.928 save percentage
.940 even-strength save percentage
It’s obviously quite close, what Rask is doing now compared to what he did to begin that 2013 run, but it stands out a bit more considering Rask appears to really be elevating his play this postseason.
To prove that, one could look either to data or to the saves he’s making on a regular basis. Take your pick.
Stat-wise, he’s jumping from a .912 save percentage and 2.48 GAA in the regular season to his current marks of .940 and 2.19. Back in 2013, his postseason performance was actually a slight dip from his .929 save percentage and 2.00 GAA in the regular season. (The best had yet to come for Rask in that 2013 playoffs, as he would post an absurd .951 save percentage over his final 10 postseason games, all of which came against the Penguins and Blackhawks, teams that ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the NHL in goals scored that season.)
Another metric that can quantify Rask “stepping up,” so to speak, would be goals saved above average. That mark is currently at 5.23 for Rask.
The degree of difficulty has also been high for Rask, and his high-danger save percentage of .899 during 5-on-5 play can be pointed to as the No. 1 reason the Bruins are not only still playing but are up 3-2 in their second-round series. Rask’s .899 high-danger save percentage ranks No. 1 among playoff goalies who have started at least six games this postseason. While the inclusion of more modern/analytical stats can repel some fans, this one is fairly simple: In shots taken from the most dangerous place on the ice, Rask has stopped 62 out of 69 shots. Couple that performance with his .952 save percentage on all shots outside of the high-danger zone in 5-on-5 play, and it becomes clear that Rask’s impact on the Bruins’ win-loss record this postseason cannot be overstated. (Rask’s 5-on-5 high-danger save percentage in the 2013 playoffs was .871. Tim Thomas posted an .859 mark in the 2011 playoffs, if you were curious.)
But numbers are just numbers, and they can only say so much. Watching the actual performance generally serves as a necessary complement in such cases. And watching Rask’s performance this postseason has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.
On that, we’ll get to the saves shortly, but let’s begin by just examining the quality of the goals that Columbus has needed in order to beat Rask. Ryan Dzingel and Artemi Panarin released some of the finest top-shelf snipes you’ll ever see in this sport to beat Rask. Seth Jones had to bank one off Matt Grzelcyk’s stick blade to slip one inside the post (allegedly). Matt Duchene was only able to beat Rask on second and third-chance opportunities when left alone on the doorstep on power plays. Dean Kukan may not be known as a gifted goal scorer … in that he’s never scored an NHL goal in his life … but you’d be hard-pressed to find a goalie who could’ve stopped that one-time bomb from the high slot in Game 5. Brandon Dubinsky got credit for a goal on a double-deflection in Game 1, and Pierre-Luc Dubois shortly thereafter got credit for scoring a goal when a Panarin bomb deflected off his tuchus. Boone Jenner’s goal in Game 3 came on a shot that immediately changed directions when redirecting off Connor Clifton’s stick. Columbus’ lone goal of Game 4 came only after the puck had left the rink — unbeknownst to the four on-ice officials.
You get the point: Tuukka Rask has allowed 11 goals in five games of this series, and none have been cheap. Going back through the Toronto series, there may have only been two goals (out of the 16 allowed) where one could quibble with the goaltender’s performance. If you’ve beaten Rask this postseason, you’ve had to earn it.
As for the goals that haven’t been scored, well, much of that work in net speaks for itself.
Ultimately, as has been mentioned, winning will determine how this postseason will be remembered for the man in Boston’s net. That is how these things work — and it’s why Rask’s 2013 run, outstanding as it was, is not held in nearly the same regard as Thomas’ performance two years prior.
Yet as the postseason rolls along, such things are worth documenting and monitoring.
So in the meantime, the highlight-reel saves are piling up for Rask, and the frustration level has to be rising in the Columbus dressing room. (At the very least, delusion has set in with Columbus’ head coach.) This all came after Rask stopped 54 of 57 shots when the Bruins were facing elimination in Games 6 and 7 vs. Toronto. Taken together, there should be little doubt that despite scoring contributions from a wide array of players, the Bruins would not be where they are right now if Rask had not elevated his play to an MVP-caliber level.