July 22, 2013

From NEHJ: Tuukka: Proof positive

Tuukka Rask’s scintillating .940 playoff save percentage matches Tim Thomas’ heroic marker. (Photo by Getty Images)

The sky seemed to be the limit for the Finnish netminder after a stellar rookie campaign in 2009-10, but everything that transpired afterward led some to worry that the lanky puck-stopper might not be a surefire franchise goaltender.

Could he backstop Boston to a championship? The meltdown against the Flyers was cause for concern. Could he stay healthy and handle the heavy workload? He followed up a disappointing 2010-11 season with minor knee surgery and missed the final months of 2011-12 thanks to a groin injury.

The biggest question of all, however, was this: Could Rask step out from behind Tim Thomas’ shadow and play as well as his predecessor on the game’s biggest stage? He proved that and more with a lights-out showing during a playoff run that saw Boston come within just two victories of claiming their second Stanley Cup in the past three seasons.

“I’ve said it all along: Words can’t describe how he played,” former Bruin forward Tyler Seguin said of Rask. “He stepped into the spotlight, and he dominated it, and he earned it for a long time to come here in Boston.”

After posting numbers that ranked among the league leaders during the regular season, Rask was a stud right from the get-go in the playoffs. Much like Thomas, he got better as the Bruins worked their way through the gauntlet, vanquishing the Leafs and manhandling the Rangers before holding the high-powered Penguins — a team potting more than four goals a night in the postseason coming into the conference finals — to just two goals in a four-game series sweep.

“There’s no question that the performance he put in in this series was elite,” Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said, reaffirming that Rask was just as capable of stealing playoff games — and an entire series — as Thomas was back in 2011. “He was the difference in the series, there is no question.”

While Rask and Co. fell just shy of their ultimate goal, with No. 40 allowing two stunning goals in a 17-second span as Boston looked to close out a Game 6 win on home ice to force a Game 7, his entire body of work for the playoffs was simply staggering. Rask finished with 14 victories, three shutouts, a microscopic 1.88 goals-against average and the best save percentage among playoff goalies at .940, which is exactly what Thomas posted during his run for the ages two years ago.

“Timmy did it for us for numerous years,” coach Claude Julien said when asked about Rask’s elite level of play heading into the Stanley Cup Final. “To a certain extent you got to hope that Tuukka learned from that as well, seized the moment when he had the chance. Although they’re different personalities — both have good personalities, don’t get me wrong — but different personalities, I think a lot of Timmy’s commitment and desire to be the best he could be every night has rubbed off on Tuukka. … Without that kind of goaltending, you don’t get a chance at winning a Cup.”

Asked about what he proved in 2013, Rask sounded satisfied with how everything played out in his first year as the B’s No. 1 backstop. “I don’t think I have to answer those questions anymore,” he said. “I played good. Proved everyone again that I was capable of doing it. I mean, you look at the numbers. They’re good. If I just analyze my game and by how I felt throughout the year, I thought it was a great year.”

The Bruins hope there are many more great seasons and lengthy playoff runs ahead and, as such, were working on a new contract in the
5- to 6-year range that’ll see Rask’s salary, much like his stats, rank among the game’s highest-paid goaltenders.

Rask took a bit of a gamble last summer, signing for only one season with the confidence his play would warrant a long-term contract. He entered the year as a wild card. When the Bruins get back to work in the fall, aiming to return to the promised land, no one will be left wondering whether or not they have an ace between the pipes who can help them get there.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com