There is a new king of the crease in these NHL playoffs, and his name is not Henrik Lundquist. No, the man who should be king these days is Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask. Great goaltenders have long been a staple of the NHL playoffs, and this year is no different.
Of the remaining goalies, three have won Stanley Cups as starters (Fleury, Quick, Niemi), one (Lundquist) has won a Vezina trophy, and one has won the Conn Smythe (Quick). Throw in emerging talents like Jimmy Howard and Corey Crawford, along with streaky veteran Craig Anderson, and it becomes clear why these eight teams have made it this far. Rask hasn’t been perfect in these playoffs, but his consistency is what has elevated him slightly above his peers, and makes the Bruins a legitimate Cup contender.
Roughly half way through the Bruins first round series with Toronto, Rask learned that he had been snubbed as a finalist for the Vezina trophy. All year the young netminder had been in the top five in wins, goals against, and save percentage. By seasons end Rask had finished fourth in goals against average (2.00), third in save percentage (.929) and tied for eleventh in wins (19).
What was even more impressive is that Rask accrued these numbers playing behind a Bruins team that was inconsistent at best. Many a night during this shortened season, the Bruins wouldn’t bother to show up at all, leaving Rask to bail them out time and time again.
Even though Rask has played well in regular seasons, he his unfairly remembered for his foray in the postseason. In 2010, a then twenty three year old Rask was the starter that played a role in the Bruins losing four straight games en route to a second round playoff exit to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Finnish goalie has grown up a lot since that epic collapse. With his age and skill set, Rask is going to be receiving big dollars, but in the offseason Tuuka signed a smaller one-year. Instead of haggling over a long-term extension, Rask accepted the fact that he had to go prove to management that he was worthy of being a cornerstone of the franchise.
Up to this point Rask should have very few doubters. In these playoffs Rask hasn’t put up eye opening numbers that Tim Thomas did in the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup Run, but coming into tonight he leads the league in the only stat that really matters, wins.
Critics will be quick to point out that the Rangers have such a despondent offense (and team in general), that Rask hasn’t had to face any serious amount of offensive pressure. For anyone who stands by that train of thought, you should go watch the replays of the Bruins games against Toronto.
Yes, the B’s defense minded system allows goaltenders to succeed, but in the first round versus the Leafs, Toronto was able to force the Bruins to acclimate to their vertical style of play.
For a team that prides itself on limiting their opponents number of shots, the Bruins uncharacteristically allowed the Leafs to reach the thirty shot mark in four of the seven games of the series. Rask was also forced to constantly face rushes from skilled forwards such as Phil Kessel, Jofferey Lupul, and James Van Riemsdyk. Most importantly, Tuukka repeatedly made timely saves when the Bruins couldn’t afford to give up a goal.
Early in his career, Rask broke sticks when he gave up goals, and had no problem showing up teammates who left him out to dry. The goalie in the Boston net on Thursday night however, bears almost no resemblance to the misguided youth who couldn’t keep his emotions in check.
In fact, Tuukka’s biggest strength of this playoff run has been his calming presence. Rask is almost never out of position, and even when he has allowed rebounds, he has been efficiently been able to stay on top of the puck.
While the Rask’s composure has been remarkable, the effect that it has had on his teammates has been even more impressive. In game one against the Rangers, Boston started three rookie defenseman for the first time in almost twenty years.
Most people assumed that they would struggle to adjust. Instead, Rask was able to vocalize their assignments on the fly, and by game three, what was thought to be the team’s biggest weakness had turned into one of its greatest strengths.
If and when the Bruins do advance, the level of responsibility on Rask is going to continue to increase. If Boston does end up facing a high-octane offense such as the Penguins, or the Blackhawks further down the road, Rask will need to continue to elevate his game for the Bruins to have a chance to win.
Up to this point Rask has answered every question that has been posed to him. If he can sustain his deadly combination of confidence and skill, then by the end of the playoffs, there might not be anything left to ask.
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