By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Normally, it wouldn’t be very weird for a starting goaltender to get pulled from a game after allowing four goals on 16 shots. Even if the goals weren’t necessarily the goalie’s fault, a coach will often make a change in net, if nor nothing else than simply the sake of change and to give his team a wake-up call of sorts.
Yet, in what has been a weird couple of weeks, Bruce Cassidy managed to make it weird when explaining his decision to give Tuukka Rask a seat on the bench after two periods in the Bruins’ Game 5 loss to the Islanders.
Again, had Cassidy said he made the move because Rask was not at his best and the team needed a change, it would have made perfect sense. Instead, Cassidy said that Rask was hurt. But not hurt hurt. He just needed maintenance. So he could have played. But he didn’t.
It was weird.
“Yeah, it’s uhh … there was some maintenance that needed to be done,” Cassidy said. “He wasn’t 100 percent. So we made a decision. And that’s the call we had to make between periods. I’ll just say he wasn’t himself 100 percent. Um … certainly could have went back in. We made a decision not to put him back in.”
And, given that he wasn’t 100 percent in this one, will he be fine on Wednesday night for Game 6?
“I assume he will,” Cassidy said.
Again. Kind of weird.
Certainly nobody is 100 percent at this time of year, let alone a veteran goaltender who missed a month late in the year with a (presumed) back injury. Rask wasn’t 100 percent in his first nine playoff games, when he had a .935 save percentage, a 1.94 GAA, and a 6-3 record. Seemingly all that changed on Monday was that a few more pucks got past him.
Yet … Rask skipped the team’s morning skate on Monday, opting to take some shots before the team took the ice together. Was that merely a case of a veteran getting rest, or were the Bruins aware of a physical issue that made Rask questionable for Game 5? Did they play him despite that knowledge? Did it get worse mid-game? The comment from Cassidy suggesting that Rask “certainly could have went back in” for the third period indicates that it wasn’t really the type of issue that would or should have kept him off the ice.
But really, while Cassidy’s postgame “explanation” for the goaltending switch was curious, it was merely the continuation of some eyebrow-raising comments from the head coach regarding his starting netminder.
Most notably, of course, came after Game 2, when Cassidy criticized Rask for not tracking pucks well in the overtime loss. That particular criticism was a strange one, though. None of the three regulation goals allowed by Rask that night involved puck tracking, and the overtime winner came via snipe on a breakaway.
Nevertheless, Cassidy (virtually) sat in front of the media and publicly pointed a finger at Rask, who really had been outstanding to that point.
Cassidy also threw out this barb, when asked whether or not Rask was healthy.
“Well he finished the game, so I assume he’s OK,” Cassidy said after Game 2. “If he wasn’t, he would’ve told us. We have a very capable backup. So I assume he’s fine.”
We have. A very capable backup.
Rask had been outstanding for Boston before allowing those four goals in Game 2. And even then, he made some incredible saves before taking the OT loss. And yet, at the first sign of a leak, Cassidy not-so-subtly reminded the world — and Rask — that Jeremy Swayman is a very capable backup.
Insert thinking emoji here.
Cassidy being so quick to allude to Swayman may stem from Rask being all too willing to discuss his health in recent weeks.
In an interview with WEEI before the series began, Rask said:
“Health is OK. I’ve been playing, so that’s … that’s OK. Not as good as I would want to be, but obviously I’ve been playing and practicing. So I’m out there. That’s all that matters.”
That came after Rask sidestepped a question about his long-term physical status following a Game 1 loss in Washington to start the postseason.
“Well I’m not going to ask that right now,” Rask said when asked if he feels physically capable of playing next season and beyond. “I’ll talk to you after the season. You’ll find out.”
Given the readiness of Rask to volunteer the news that he’s not playing at 100 percent, and considering Rask was slow to get up and labored a bit during Game 2 vs. the Islanders, Cassidy was asked a day after that loss if it was indeed an issue for the goaltender. Cassidy did not seem interested in entertaining the notion.
“Right now I don’t think that there’s any reason to believe that he won’t be ready to go Thursday. So that’s where we’re at with Tuukka,” Cassidy said. “As for his injury, I don’t believe that there’s anything to worry about. If there is, then obviously we’ll have to sort through that.”
Cassidy did admit that Rask has been dealing with “nagging” injuries all year, but stated plainly that Rask was “obviously good enough to play.”
A day after that, Cassidy once again downplayed any physical issues with Rask.
“[He’s] fine,” Cassidy insisted. “There’s no issue there. He’s ready to go.”
There’s no issue there.
Going to need a quick visit from our friend again:
Rask didn’t look like he had an issue in Game 3. He looked flat-out spectacular, only allowing a single goal — one that came when Mat Barzal had the time and space to take three whacks at the puck to finally get it through Rask. Cassidy did say his goaltender was “rock solid” in that game, which involved Rask making back-to-back saves in overtime before Brad Marchand scored the game-winner. But the praise was also notably muted.
“I thought it was a great goaltended game — by their guy and our guy. That’s what you expect in the playoffs,” Cassidy said.
It wasn’t quite “we have a very capable backup,” no. But “that’s what you expect” stands out — especially in retrospect — as a somewhat blasé form of praise.
Hit ’em with it again, thinking face emoji!
It’s all been … weird.
Rask has nagging injuries, but there’s no issue there.
He got pulled from the game for maintenance, even though he could have stayed in the game.
We assume he’ll be fine for Wednesday night, but we don’t seem to actually know anything.
All of the comments, combined with Cassidy’s in-game decision on Monday, create a muddy situation heading into a must-win game in what will be an absolutely chaotic atmosphere at Nassau Coliseum. Swayman has been a true delight for Boston this year, but willingly inserting him into that scenario would be poor coaching and planning on the part of Cassidy. That would be setting up a promising young goaltender to fail.
The fact that Swayman immediately allowed a goal — New York’s fifth, which stood as the game-winner — on Monday night had to have made the decision sting a bit more. Granted, given Rask’s performance on the night, it seems unlikely that he would have made the point-blank save on Brock Nelson in that scenario. But Rask had stopped Kyle Palmieri in a similar situation earlier in the game, and if you’re going to go down, you’re generally going to want to go down with your best players on the ice. Swayman being the man between the pipes for that goal does create a potentially series-altering “what if,” if one were to go down that road.
But, maybe not. Because Rask was hurt. But not really. Because he could have been in the game. But he wasn’t. Or was he?
We don’t actually know.
Those of us on the outside obviously don’t need to know every single detail of every single player’s health status. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the time of year when hidden injuries are the norm, not the exception.
But from the outside looking in, it doesn’t look like those “in the know” can actually get a proper grasp of the situation with Rask. And they’re kinda-sorta out of time to figure it out.