It’s been a unique year for Boston Bruins‘ goalie Tuukka Rask.
Before the season started, he received a one-year contract to remain in Boston. It seemed ideal for both parties; Rask accepted it as an audition for bigger dollars and more years, while the Bruins didn’t back themselves into a cap-strapping deal a la Rick DiPietro or Roberto Luongo.
As the 2013 regular season began, Rask posted stellar numbers right out of the gate. However, regardless of how well he played, Rask couldn’t avoid the critics.
Despite finishing the season with a GAA of 2.00 and a .929 save percentage, both stats landing him in the top five amongst the league in each category, Boston’s mid-season slump resulted in what appeared to be an unfair amount of criticism aimed at Rask. Even coach Claude Julien called his Finnish netminder out on occasion. Bruins backup Anton Khudobin‘s equally impressive play even had some fans clamoring that he should be the starter.
It’s quite a rare event for a goalie to post such above average numbers and still be such a lightning rod for criticism.
One of the issues seemingly plaguing Rask throughout the season was his lack of making timely saves. Boston gave up third period leads at quite an alarming rate during the last half of the season. Even though a lot of blame rested at the feet of a suddenly ineffective defensive corps, it was Rask who received the brunt of the blame. It seemed he would be the first man to praise in victory, and the first man to blame in defeat.
As the Bruins entered the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, the pressure only increased for the man between Boston’s pipes, and that’s mainly because he had huge skates to fill following in the footsteps of Tim Thomas. This is typical when you’re next in line to a man who won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Award two years ago.
However, despite being forced into seven games against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, Rask looked sharp for the majority of the series. Against the New York Rangers in round two, he posted better stats than New York’s super-goalie Henrik Lundqvist, helping the Bruins advance to the Eastern Conference Finals in just five games.
Yet, go ahead and ask any Bruins fan what Rask’s defining moment was in the series against New York. Hopefully, they claim it was his game-saving stop of a Ryan Callahan breakaway late in Game 5. Unfortunately, though, a good amount of fans will bring up his goofy looking tumble in Game 4 that resulted in one of the easiest goals in the history of hockey.
Again, that would be unfair, especially in a series where he made a Vezina candidate look average.
Well, if Rask is looking for the best chance to show the league his true capabilities, to make the best possible case towards his rights to a monster contract, look no further than this upcoming series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With Pittsburgh comes the best hockey player in the world, Sidney Crosby, and a supporting cast full of players who could be franchise stars anywhere else. They score, and they score often.
There are many keys to the Bruins’ success if they intend on advancing past the perennial favorite Penguins, but none are bigger than Rask. Boston’s defense could play lights out for as many games as it takes, but the Bruins’ backstop will still have to stand on his head more often than he’d like.
Rask has done a solid job to this point of the year, and he has been a big, if not the biggest reason the Bruins have made it this far. But until he truly dominates an entire series, he may be subject to skepticism.
This is why he’ll need to be Boston’s best player throughout a series in which the Bruins are seen as the underdog. It would be a true testament to his abilities and reassure everyone in Boston that the team is in good hands with him in net.
Playing in Thomas’ shadow was no easy feat for Rask. To beat everyone’s lock pick as Stanley Cup Champions would be one huge step out of the dark.