By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — On Friday, Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said that the NHL will be handing out the Stanley Cup this year, so the Bruins might as well try to win it.
On Saturday, that task became a whole lot more difficult.
Tuukka Rask shocked the hockey world when he announced Saturday — less than two hours before the start of Game 3 against the Carolina Hurricanes — that he will be returning home to be with his family.
That decision is sure to stretch The Great Tuukka Rask Debate™ into the next millennium, as Boston hockey fans have loved nothing more than to argue vociferously about the goaltender who has been very, very good for a very, very long time. The anti-Raskers will surely drop this decision as a cherry on top of the sundae that includes knocks like missing a game due to a stomach virus, allowing goals to a dynastic Blackhawks team, and blowing a series 10 years ago.
While there will never be any settling of that debate, there should be no doubt that the Bruins’ chances of winning the Stanley Cup just dropped significantly.
That’s not to say that Jaroslav Halak is an incapable goaltender. In fact, Halak was better than Rask for the first couple of months of the 2018-19 season. Come to think of it, Halak was one of the best goalies in the world for that two-month stretch.
Of course, over time, Halak has leveled off quite a bit. During the 2019-20 season, he went 18-6-6 with a .919 save percentage and a 2.39 goals-against average. A year prior, he was 22-11-4 with a .922 save percentage and a 2.34 GAA. Among goaltenders with at least 66 starts over the past two seasons, Halak ranks 23rd in save percentage but fifth in even-strength save percentage and fifth in GAA.
To put it succinctly, the Bruins can still go on a run with Halak in net.
It’s just that the run is likely to be shorter.
For as much flak as Rask takes for this, that, or the other thing, the facts are that he is one of the best playoff goalies of all time. That assessment rubs many people the wrong way because of the way the 2013 Stanley Cup Final ended, but it’s nevertheless the objective reality.
Among goaltenders with at least 90 playoff starts, Rask owns the second-best save percentage of all time at .9258, just a fraction behind Braden Holtby’s .9264. Rask’s .932 even strength save percentage in the playoffs is the best mark in the history of that stat being tracked. Rask’s 2.20 playoff GAA ranks eigth all time, as well.
Stats and criticism aside, Rask has proven capable of playing his best on a grand stage. He has started eight games in the conference finals, owning a perfect 8-0 record to go with an utterly absurd .972 save percentage and an equally ridiculous 0.82 GAA. He has recorded three shutouts in those eight games, allowing just seven total goals.
Rask doesn’t quite have the same winning record in the Stanley Cup Final, but in 13 career games on the biggest stage in hockey, Rask owns a .923 save percentage and 2.32 GAA.
And though it may feel like a lifetime ago, Rask was indeed the best goaltender in the NHL during the regular season, backstopping the Bruins during one of their most successful campaigns in franchise history.
Among goaltenders with at least 35 games played (roughly half the season), Rask ranked first in GAA (2.12) and first in save percentage (.929). His lead in both categories was significant. His 2.12 GAA was almost a third-of-a-goal better than the second-place Carter Hart, at 2.41. And Rask’s save percentage was seven points better than second-place Connor Hellebuyck at .922. Rask was tied for having the second-most shutouts with five (Hellebuyck had six). Diving a little deeper, Rask had the best even strength save percentage at .939, 10 points better than second-place Phillip Grubauer’s .929.
Rask will likely win the Vezina for his work during the pre-coronavirus regular season, which should make for a pretty awkward acceptance speech. The ripple effects of his decision are hard to predict. Will Rask rejoin the team next season as if nothing ever happened? With no pandemic end in sight, will there even be a next season? Does he retire? Sit out a year? Get traded?
That story cannot be properly or accurately forecast at this moment in time.
For now, though, the Bruins are going to have to navigate the Stanley Cup Playoff waters without the man who was the best goaltender in the league this year. Now, one could easily argue that given that his heart and mind weren’t fully invested in the restart, that the Bruins would not be getting that Vezina-caliber play anyway.
Regardless, the Bruins will have their hands full with the Hurricanes, as they try to deal with the loss of Rask and the injury to David Pastrnak. If they can stay afloat despite being without two of their best players, the challenge will only get steeper if the team goes deeper.
It will be in the second and third rounds where the loss of Rask will surely be most evident.
Halak has started 29 playoff games in his career, with most of them coming for Montreal in 2010, when he started over Carey Price. That year he was solid, going 9-9 with a .923 save percentage and 2.55 GAA. He’s started just 10 playoff games in the nine seasons since, posting a .921 save percentage and a 2.39 GAA. Most recently he started in place of Rask — who had a cough and thus was not allowed to play — in the Bruins’ round-robin game two weeks ago. Halak allowed four goals on 29 shots in that 4-1 loss.
Again, Halak is certainly a capable NHL goaltender; he’s not a backup in the true sense of the word. Against the Hurricanes — who had a decent but not explosive offense with 3.19 goals per game during the regular season — he’s capable of backstopping a series victory.
But if the Bruins move on to face the Tampa Bays and Washingtons and Philadelphias of the world, that distinct difference between “world class” and merely “above average” will make that march to a Cup Final all the more unlikely for a team that was the very best in the NHL all season long.