By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Hockey is, at its core, a complex sport, often dictated as much by anarchy and mayhem as it is by strategies and execution.
It is in the midst of this chaos that the average spectator seeks simplicity to distill the game down to its most basic and easily digestible form. More often than not, that path leads directly to the man wearing all of that padding in the crease.
It makes sense, really, that the discussion around hockey can oftentimes focus disproportionately on goaltending. The netminder is, after all, the final line of defense in keeping the 6-ounce rubber disc out of the net. Though tips and redirections can be imperceptible at live speed, though screens aren’t always evident to the naked eye, and though stopping world-class hockey players from scoring is an absolutely difficult thing to do, the black-and-white nature of the results of the goaltending position often end up looking exceptionally alluring to those looking to analyze the game.
Add in that there are many easily available statistics to help us all sort through what we’ve seen, and it’s no surprise that we are a goalie-obsessed species.
All of this is a very long-winded way of introducing Tuukka Rask, a man whose importance will be both overstated and understated in the coming weeks, as the Bruins vie for their seventh Stanley Cup in franchise history.
By now, everybody knows that Rask has played unbelievably through the first three rounds of the playoffs. He’s 12-5 with a .942 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average, posting two shutouts and allowing two or fewer goals in 12 of his 17 postseason starts. The Bruins are 10-2 in those games.
It’s not a stretch in the least to suggest that Rask has been the Bruins’ most valuable player. Logically, if he maintains this level of play in the Stanley Cup Final (despite the NHL giving him 10 full days to cool off) and leads the Bruins to a championship, then he is expected to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts.
As such, Rask has been getting deserved praise from all corners of the hockey universe, with some going so far as to say that he’s playing the best hockey of his entire career. That praise does go a bit too far, as Rask has displayed this kind of dominance for month-long stretches multiple times during his career. Notably, he did so during the 2013 postseason, when he actually performed better through three rounds as he has this year.
TUUKKA RASK, THROUGH THREE ROUNDS, 2013
12-4, .943 save percentage, 1.75 GAA, 2 shutouts
TUUKKA RASK, THROUGH THREE ROUNDS, 2019
12-5, .942 save percentage, 1.84 GAA, 2 shutouts
Rask has stopped 517 shots thus far in the postseason, which is 20 fewer than his work through three rounds in 2013. But six years ago, he faced the league’s No. 1, No. 6 and No. 16 teams in terms of goals scored in those first three rounds; this year, the load has been a little lighter, with Rask facing the No. 4, No. 12 and No. 16-ranked teams in scoring. (Of interest: Next, he’ll face the St. Louis Blues, who ranked 15th in the NHL in goals scored this year. The 2013 Blackhawks, who bested Rask in the Bruins in the Cup Final, ranked No. 2 in scoring.)
That, though, is irrelevant to the larger point, which is that Rask has at times carried the Bruins through lulls, thus allowing the team to win 10 of their last 12 games en route to earning this Stanley Cup Final berth.
And so, if one were to look ahead, one would be able to easily see that Rask’s place in Bruins and hockey history can be shaped significantly if he can keep up a comparable level of play while earning four more victories.
While nobody should put any carts before any horses, it is nevertheless important to look ahead to see what’s at stake. So, consider that the Conn Smythe has been awarded to a goalie 16 times, to 13 different goaltenders. (Bernie Parent won the award twice, and Patrick Roy won it three times.) A goaltender has not won the award for seven years running, and a goalie has won the award just five times since 1998.
If we were to project Rask’s current stats over the rest of the playoffs, we can see how that performance can compare to some of the greatest goaltending performances in modern NHL history.
PATRICK ROY, 2001
16-7, .934 save percentage, 1.70 GAA, 4 shutouts
JEAN-SEBASTIEN GIGUERE, 2003
15-6, .945 save percentage, 1.62 GAA, 5 shutouts
CAM WARD, 2006
15-8, .920 save percentage, 2.14 GAA, 2 shutouts
TIM THOMAS, 2011
16-9, .940 save percentage, 1.98 GAA, 4 shutouts
JONATHAN QUICK, 2012
16-4, .946 save percentage, 1.41 GAA, 3 shutouts
TUUKKA RASK, 2019 (projected)
16-7, .942 save percentage, 1.84 GAA, 2 shutouts
Now, obviously, projecting the performance over the past 17 games through the next round is not a scientific method, so Rask’s stats in this case are only presented for comparative purposes. Clearly, for Rask to not only land on but ascend this list of great modern goaltending performances, he’ll need to play even better in the upcoming Cup Final than he has during the postseason.
The Cup Final is precisely where Tim Thomas turned a good postseason into an unforgettable postseason. Against the Canucks, who led the league in goals that season, Thomas posted an absurd. 967 save percentage and 1.15 GAA with two shutouts in order to win the award. That Thomas captured the Conn Smythe despite near-point-per-game production out of David Krejci properly reflects Thomas’ value to that Cup victory.
(As an aside, Martin Brodeur likely got robbed of that 2003 Conn Smythe, as he posted a .934 with a 1.65 GAA and an NHL playoff record SEVEN shutouts. Brodeur also actually was on the winning team, too.)
With an uptick in overall performance, Rask could climb that list of greatness even further. For example, if he were to continue his pace from the past 12 games (10-2, .950 save percentage, 1.53 GAA), then he’d end up with something like this: a 16-5 or 16-6 record, a .save percentage approaching .950, and a GAA near 1.60.
If Rask were able to play that well through the Cup Final, then he’d be in position to lay claim to the best single-season playoff save percentage of all time. With a minimum of 13 games played, that record currently belongs to Jonathan Quick’s .946 mark in 2012. The record for best single-season postseason GAA, again with a 13-game minimum, also belongs to Quick at 1.41. Rask would have the chance to post the second-best such mark, ahead of Chris Osgood, who’s currently second with a 1.55 GAA in 2008.
That, of course, is only a best-case scenario. It’s more than possible that Rask backslides a bit, and his numbers end up looking a bit worse. The future, as they say, cannot be predicted.
So, for one last look at Rask as a postseason netminder, here’s where he currently ranks on the all-time postseason lists for save percentage and goals-against average (min. 55 games):
CAREER POSTSEASON SAVE PERCENTAGE, ALL TIME (min. 55 games)
1. TUUKKA RASK, .92788
2. Braden Holtby, .92785
3. Dominik Hasek, .925
4. Johnny Bower, .9231
5. Jacques Plante, .9228
6. Jonathan Quick, .9221
7. Henrik Lundqvist, .9218
8. Miikka Kiprusoff, .921
9. Ed Belfour, .920
10. Corey Crawford, .91898
11. Martin Brodeur, .91860
12. Patrick Roy, .91824
CAREER POSTSEASON EVEN-STRENGTH SAVE PERCENTAGE, ALL TIME (min. 55 games, tracked since 1998)
1. Dominik Hasek, .939
2. TUUKKA RASK, .935
3. Roberto Luongo, .934
4. Miikka Kiprusoff, .933
5. Ed Belfour, .93247
6. Patrick Roy, .93240
7. Henrik Lundqvist, .93189
8. Chris Osgood, .93118
9. Braden Holtby, .93091
10. Curtis Joseph, .930
11. Martin Brodeur, .929
12. Nikolai Khabibulin, .928
CAREER POSTSEASON GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE, ALL TIME (min. 55 games)
1. Turk Broda, 1.98
2. Dominik Hasek, 2.02
3. Martin Brodeur, 2.02
4. Chris Osgood, 2.09
5. Braden Holtby, 2.09
6. Jacques Plante, 2.12
7. Ed Belfour, 2.17
8. TUUKKA RASK, 2.17
9. Jonatahn Quick, 2.23
10. Henrik Lundqvist, 2.28
11. Corey Crawford, 2.29
12. Patrick Roy, 2.30
Nobody would take those numbers and argue that Rask has been the best goaltender in the history of NHL postseason hockey. Certainly, the significant differences from era to era are much too great to disregard, plus there is the matter of longevity. Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy each played more than 200 playoff games, while Rask will have played between 86 and 89 playoff games by the end of the upcoming series.
But the point of the exercise is not to make any particular case of ranking. It is merely to note that Rask has already placed himself rather well, historically speaking and among his contemporaries.
Without a Cup over his head, though, it won’t ever be remembered as true greatness. If this season ends any other way, regardless of the reason, all of Rask’s work would likely be regarded as greatness that came up short.
Narratives can be tricky, and they can be fickle. What Rask has in front of him, beginning Monday night in Boston, is the opportunity to steer that narrative in a way that nobody will ever be able to manipulate.