Let the record show that on May 14, in the 58th game of his NHL rookie season, Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask proved that he’s human.
All season long, we wondered if anything short of throwing a lit firecracker in his skate would get Rask to flinch, to change his emotional level, to prove there’s blood and now ice water running through his veins.
As it turned out, it took a Game 7 in an Eastern Conference semifinal series with Philadelphia – and a date with one of the most infamous records in sports – to make Rask look antsy and a bit overactive.
Now it’s up to Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and his staff to divvy up the blame between factors that led to Rask’s demise in Game 7, and decide what to do next about the club’s goaltending position going forward.
For Rask individually, there were obviously nerves at work in the final game of Boston’s epic collapse. But there was also an exhaustion factor, as the 23-year-old played every second in net for the Bruins after finishing the regular season with six straight starts and seven consecutive game appearances prior to Boston’s meaningless regular-season finale. He was slow to react to the change of direction on Jame van Riemsdyk’s rally-starting goal, and gave up some uncharacteristic juicy rebounds — one that led to Scott Hartnell’s goal. Rask showed signs of weakening in Game 6, when he failed to prevent Daniel Briere’s goal despite getting a shoulder on the puck.
To be fair, the Bruins’ play in front of Rask also tailed off. As five-man units, they too often got away from their structure and didn’t show the commitment to block shots and clear bodies. Philadelphia’s size advantage made life miserable for the Bruins’ defensemen, and in turn Rask, as well.
If you’re grading Rask on the playoffs as a whole, you’d definitely give him something between a B-plus and A-minus. He outdueled the probably Vezina Trophy-winner in the first round and then was outdueled by Philly emergency replacement Michael Leighton when everything was on the line. He didn’t really steal a single game through Boston’s 13 postseason contests.
History kind of repeated itself as far as Rask’s career. In his first North American season with Providence, he led the P-Bruins to two straight wins to open a second-round series and then flamed out in four straight. Sound familiar? The moral of the story is Rask took the loss to heart and came back stronger in 2008-09. That spring, he led the P-Bruins one round deeper (before they ran into powerhouse Hershey) while posting an awesome .930 save percentage. So based on scouting reports and a small sample of history, it’s a sure bet Rask will return to Boston extra-motivated and ready to build on his inaugural NHL season in 2009-10.
However, the Bruins might be wise to wait before they decide to anoint Rask as a 60-game type of No. 1 netminder. If he can get worn down after playing in 19 out of 20 games, what might happen if his workload is substantially increased? Without the safety net of Tim Thomas sitting on the bench, things could get dicey. As I’ve written before, keeping Thomas is a luxury the Bruins can afford because the combined cap hit for their two goaltenders is comparable to that of other teams that lean on one elite goaltender.
Should Rask battle a sophomore slump or require more rest than a Martin Brodeur of Miikka Kiprusoff, the Bruins cannot afford to have too much of a drop-off on his night’s off. Their system is too predicated on sound positional play and top-notch goaltending. The Bruins can trade Thomas, but then have to hope that another back-up could sufficiently fill-in for Rask. The organization is barren right nor as far as homegrown back-ups. So help would have to come from outside. There’s a reason No. 2 netminders like Alex Auld and Patrick Lalime change organizations every other year or sooner – they’re just not that reliable.
Some teams would kill to be able to preserve a Rask-like goaltender by filling in with a Tim Thomas every fourth or fifth game. Thomas might be the Bruins’ best asset when shopping for scoring help, but the decline in talent between the pipes might not be worth the maneuver.
Rask has finally shown he’s human. Paired with Thomas, he formed a super-human goaltending tandem in 2009-10. Until he shows that he can be a hero from start to finish, the Bruins should stick with their winning combination.