Allegedly a person never forget how to ride a bicycle.
We could ask Bruins defensemen and biking enthusiasts Andrew Ference and Zdeno Chara for confirmation of that axiom.
But it’s pretty obvious that a sophomore NHL goaltender can forget how to play the way he did in his dominant rookie season. Super-confident 23-year-0ld netminder Tuukka Rask might not admit that he had completely lost his way, but the results told enough of the story at the outset of his second season.
Whether his problems were physical or mental, or a combination of both, he had a hard time with the game on the line in the early going this season. He didn’t earn his first win until Nov. 18 and his second didn’t come until Dec. 9.
After seemingly turning things around after New Year’s, Rask’s last start before Boston’s six-game road trip was a five-goal bomb — his worst outing of the year — that caused him to get pulled in a loss to Detroit.
With his fourth straight victory, 1-0, over Ottawa tonight, however, it’s safe to say Rask has gotten right back up on that bike and is pedaling at a championship pace.
The just-completed jaunt from Long Island to Ottawa to Boston out to Western Canada and then back to Ottawa, which finished with six wins on Boston’s ledger, looked at the start as a perfect chance to get some work for Rask and rest for Vezina Trophy-favorite Tim Thomas. In the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers, the Bruins would be facing three offenses that reside in the bottom third of the NHL. Sometimes the best laid plans can go awry. In this case, Rask made the most of the opportunity.
Any shakiness he showed in the third period Sunday in the 3-2 win at Edmonton was a distant memory tonight. Playing behind a team that barely found its legs long enough to score the game’s lone goal, Rask was spectacular with 33 saves in his second shutout of the season. He finished the road trip with a .942 save percentage. And in any other season, or on a roster with any other goaltender other than the man putting up record-breaking numbers this season, Rask would be causing a goaltender controversy.
But there’s no strife in Boston this season. Everyone knows this is Thomas’ team and he’s going to be The Man come the playoffs. That doesn’t mean that Rask can go into mothballs. Part of Thomas taking the Bruins where they want to go this spring — which is beyond the second round — is making sure the 36-year-old (he’ll turn 37 in the first round of the playoffs) is rested, healthy and ready to go.
The Bruins could split the final 19 games evenly or just give Thomas a couple more starts than Rask to make sure he’s totally on top of his game once that first-round series opens. Regardless, there are arguably only three more games left on the Bruins’ schedule — rematches with the Isles (twice more) and Sens — that can be considered in the same category as the four games Rask won against last-place teams on this trip. For the Bruins’ plans to work, Rask is going to have to star against some higher-end NHL opponents the way he has against the league’s weak sisters.
The unleashing of Rask on a more formidable foe doesn’t have to start Thursday against Tampa Bay. Maybe Saturday’s tilt with Pittsburgh, a team he lost to in January despite some spectacular saves, could be a chance to go with Rask. He hasn’t faced Montreal, next Tuesday’s opponent yet, but has enjoyed success against the Canadiens. He’s also thrived against the Buffalo Sabres, Boston’s opponent next Thursday.
Getting Rask some games against the mettle of the league could do more than just preserve Thomas. Should Thomas suffer an unfortunate injury, it would help if Rask had faced some teams that weren’t lottery-bound before getting thrown into the playoff fire.
The Bruins always boast that they have a No. 1 and 1A tandem of goaltenders. That doesn’t mean one guy faces one class of opponent and the other only gets games against lesser clubs. Rask showed signs of his 2009-10 form during this four-game winning streak, so now it’s time to see if that translates against the threat of a high-caliber club with vital points in the standings at stake.