By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The standard was never fair. The standard was never going to be fair. But Tuukka Rask never seemed to let it bother him.

As the fan base and the talking heads in the media argued year after year after year about whether Rask had the makeup to play his position at a championship level, as doubters openly and regularly questioned if he could be the best player for a Stanley Cup winner, the goaltender simply continued to go about his business.

The standard — which is to say, one of the great postseason goaltending performances of all time, authored by Tim Thomas in 2011 — could never reasonably be met. The bar was too high to clear for anyone, including Rask.

Until … it wasn’t.

Or, it almost wasn’t.

Rask entered Wednesday night’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in the driver’s seat to take home the Conn Smythe Trophy, win or lose. But an odd night that saw the Blues score twice on their first four shots and four goals overall on just 20 shots changed that course, and it will likely ensure that the never-ending debate and the undue criticism for Rask will continue for the foreseeable future.

It may live on forever.

It was telling, really, to see how quickly a number of Bruins fans jumped off the S.S. Tuukka on Wednesday night, after that bizarre first period which saw the Blues capitalize twice on just four shots. Though the first goal came on a redirect and the second would have required a tremendous (but possible) save, there was a distinct sense that those who’ve spent the past decade eager to discredit Rask believed they had finally, at the end of a long postseason, been proven right.

“This is who he is” immediately became a common refrain, as did, “Finally, the real Tuukka shows up.”

Of course, had the two-saves-on-four-shots Rask been the real Tuukka, the Bruins never would have even been in this position at all.

Entering Game 7, Rask and the Bruins had been staring in the face of elimination three times this postseason. In those three games — Games 6 and 7 against Toronto, and Game 6 against St. Louis — Rask stopped 82 of 86 shots, good for a .953 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average. Prior to Wednesday, the Bruins had an opportunity to close out a series three times before — Game 7 vs. Toronto, Game 6 at Columbus, and Game 4 at Carolina — and won all three games. Rask posted a preposterous .990 save percentage and 0.33 GAA in those three contests, earning shutouts in Columbus (39 saves) and Carolina (24 saves). He allowed one goal on 96 shots.

TUUKKA RASK WHEN FACING ELIMINATION, 2019
Game 6 @ Toronto: 22 saves on 24 shots, W 4-2
Game 7 vs. Toronto: 32 saves on 33 shots, W 5-1
Game 6 @ St. Louis: 28 saves on 29 shots, W 5-1
Game 7 vs. St. Louis: 16 saves on 20 shots, L 4-1
TOTAL: 98 saves on 106 shots (.925 save percentage)

TUUKKA RASK IN CLOSEOUT GAMES, 2019
Game 7, vs. Toronto: 32 saves on 33 shots, W 5-1
Game 6 @ Columbus: 39 saves on 39 shots, W 3-0
Game 4 @ Carolina: 24 saves on 24 shots, W 4-0
Game 7 vs. St. Louis: 16 saves on 20 shots, L 4-1
TOTAL: 111 saves on 116 shots (.957 save percentage)

The work of Rask from April through June had him in position to be the first goaltender to win the Conn Smythe since 2012, and just the sixth goaltender to win the award in the last 21 years. And had Ryan O’Reilly been kept off the score sheet in Game 7, it’s very likely that Rask would have still earned the award.

Rask finished the postseason with a .934 save percentage and 2.02 goals-against average. Jordan Binnington became the Cup winner with a .914 save percentage and 2.46 GAA.

Back in 2013, Rask posted a .940 save percentage and 1.88 GAA. Corey Crawford won the Cup with a .934 and a 1.84.

Among goaltenders to make at least 20 postseason starts since 1956, Rask  this year had the eighth-best save percentage. Along with his 2013 playoff numbers (.940, 1.88), Rask owns both the eighth-best and fifth-best single-postseason save percentage since the stack began being tracked. Among goalies to make at least 50 playoff starts, Rask owns the second best playoff save percentage of all time.

CAREER POSTSEASON SAVE PERCENTAGE, ALL TIME (min. 55 games)
1. Braden Holtby, .928
2. TUUKKA RASK,
.927

3. Dominik Hasek, .925
4. Johnny Bower, .923
5. Jacques Plante, .923
6. Jonathan Quick, .922
7. Henrik Lundqvist, .922
8. Miikka Kiprusoff, .921
9. Ed Belfour, .920
10. Corey Crawford, .919
11. Martin Brodeur, .919
12. Patrick Roy, .918

By any standard, this was an excellent postseason. By any standard, it was a continuation of what’s been an excellent postseason career. Yet in an almost-perfect nod to the excessive standards placed on the Boston netminder, it went sideways at exactly the wrong time, thereby guaranteeing that the two Rask “camps” such as they are will remain split for the foreseeable future.

Of course, those standards did not just appear out of thin air.

Thomas earned his Conn Smythe by helping to break a 39-year championship drought for Boston, posting a .940 save percentage and 1.98 GAA, while finishing off four shutouts. That included a shutout in Game 7 of the Cup Final on the road, something no goaltender had ever done before.

Rightfully so, Thomas’ postseason work became the stuff of legend — and it also became the standard by which Rask would always be judged for as long as he played in Boston. Thomas left a mighty large shadow for Rask to operate under for the years that followed.

And, even though Rask bettered Thomas’ numbers just two years later — Rask posted a .940 save percentage and 1.88 GAA in the 2013 postseason — the fact was that the Bruins came up two wins short of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Even if it wasn’t Rask’s fault, the goaltender was going to wear the majority of the blame.

From there, the Rask “narrative,” as it came to be known, went through its series of ups and downs. Rask earned his first All-Star nod and his first Vezina Trophy the following season, leading the Bruins to a Presidents’ Trophy as the best regular-season team in hockey. In the playoffs, the league’s best goaltender on the league’s best team posted a .928 save percentage and a 1.98 GAA, but once again it was not enough. The Bruins were eliminated in seven games in the second round at the hands of the Canadiens.

Two years later, with the Bruins needing a win on the final day of the regular season in order to make the playoffs, Rask was unable to play due to a stomach illness. This ailment served as gasoline for critics to pour onto the fire, evidence that Rask was fearful of “the big moment.”

This suggestion was always nonsensical; Rask’s playoff record in 2013 and 2014 should have made that clear. His aforementioned playoff numbers, when taken in conjunction with his regular-season resume (he owns the third-best career regular-season save percentage — minimum 400 games — at .9211, just .0012 percentage points the all-time leader — Dominik Hasek at .9223) show quite clearly that he is an elite goaltender.

Statistically speaking, both in the regular season and postseason, Rask has consistently been one of the best goaltenders to ever occupy an NHL crease.

Nevertheless, one missed regular-season game in a year when the Bruins had just one player (Patrice Bergeron) in the NHL’s top 25 in points came to define Rask for many critics.

That criticism — senseless though it may have been — will not fizzle now, not after the ultimate result of this playoff run led once again to an opposing team lifting the Cup on Boston’s home ice. In a world increasingly full of details, analytics, and analysis, it really is as simple as that.

That, however, doesn’t make it right.

“He [Tuukka Rask] was excellent,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said of Rask. “He was our best player.”

“I mean, for him to be as good as he was, that’s the reason we’re here,” Brad Marchand said. “He was incredible every night, gave us every opportunity to win. He’s the best goalie in the league. He showed that in the playoffs, and he did a hell of a job, and he did his part.”

“He was our MVP, for sure,” David Krejci said. “There’s nothing I can say. He was the MVP, he was the best player, he kept us in the game so many times. You know, he deserved it. We all did. Just today, it wasn’t our night.”

The Bruins have twice lost the Stanley Cup in the past seven years, two postseasons where Rask was one of or the very best player on the team. Realistically, the player who performs the best doesn’t often get the blame at the end of a postseason.

But goaltending is a different animal, and the stark contrast in save numbers for Binnington and Rask in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final is sure to remain a sticking point for years to come in Boston.

The criticism has been harsh, and the criticism will continue. It comes with the territory.

For his part, Rask has never seemed to care all that much. He’s let everybody else expend their energy fighting it out, as he’s just quietly continued to do his work.

As for the larger conversation about Rask, it won’t quiet down any time soon. In a way, the two sides of the discussion simply refueled their tanks for another year — or decade — of discussion about the Boston netminder. He was the Bruins’ best player on another run to the Cup Final, but he didn’t finish the job.

Two goals in 17 seconds, two goals on four shots — a neat-and-tidy reply to any information about the goaltender’s performances.

It wasn’t Rask’s fault that his team didn’t score until the 58th minute of the game, or that Marchand needed a line change with 12 seconds left in a period, or that really not a single Bruins player can feel good about his individual play in Game 7. But that doesn’t matter. Rask did make a handful of Grade A saves to keep the score at 2-0 through the second period, but, against, it doesn’t matter.

The established standard, fair or unfair, has yet to be met by Rask. He and his team came up a hair short in earning the hardware that would have put the fight to bed for good.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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