The rebounds were flying everywhere, and with less than a minute to go in the first period, Grant Clitsome’s untouched, unscreened slap shot from the blue line beat Tuukka Rask.
After 20 minutes tonight in Columbus, it looked like the second-year Bruins goaltender was going to let down his coach and his team for the second straight Tuesday.
And then suddenly Rask “Version 2009-10” made another visit to the Boston crease. The Blue Jackets found the back of the net just once more, including three failed attempts in a shootout the Bruins won, 1-0, to clinch their 3-2 victory.
Over the 45 minutes between his shaky opening stanza and the post-overtime gimmick, Rask was fantastic and fortunate. And he had to be a little bit of both with the Bruins often treating the puck in their own end as they were trying to let Rask face target practice.
Daniel Paille set up a Derek Dorsett point-blank chance with a bad-bounce aided giveaway. Rask made a dive and the save. Jakub Voracek and Antoine Vermette were both robbed by Rask late in the third period on wide-open chances in tight. The Bruins’ penalty kill was 6-for-6 and added a shorthanded goal to tie the game by Rich Peverley, but without Rask providing some other-worldly play that PK success rate would’ve taken a beating.
With the season he’s had, Rask deserves a little luck and he had it as well tonight. The Blue Jackets hit no fewer than three posts over the course of the final two periods to run their total hits of the iron for the night to five. However, that didn’t take away from how outstanding and important his performance was to not just snap Boston’s winless streak but get Rask back on somewhat of a roll.
It’s been a weird second NHL season for Rask. Goaltenders that lead the league in goals-against average and save percentage in their rookie year usually don’t find themselves relegated to second-banana status a month into their sophomore year. Most second-year goaltenders, however, aren’t teammates with a netminder with the ability to grab the lead in both those major categories the way Tim Thomas has.
Used to serving as his team’s No. 1 for most of his career, Rask’s obviously had a hard time adjusting to the sporadic playing time in addition to the usual second-year adjustments opposing shooters have made. Back in net for the first time since his four-win road trip last Tuesday in Montreal, Rask gave up at least two bad goals in the lethargic 4-1 Bruins defeat.
Back-to-back games against Buffalo and the New York Islanders didn’t inspire head coach Claude Julien to turn back to the 24-year-old. Finally tonight it was Rask’s turn, and he answered the bell.
Now we’ll see when Rask gets another shot at a playoff-caliber NHL team. He dominated the likes of the Islanders, Ottawa and Edmonton on that road trip. He’s lost four of his last five starts against teams that currently sit in the top eight in either the Eastern of Western Conference. And he’s failed to even register a Quality Start — .913 save percentage or better, or less than three goals allowed – in his last four outings against playoff competition.
Of course, the sample size for Rask is smaller because of his status as the No. 2, whether the Bruins want to call him that or not. You can’t be a 1A if you’re not pushing the No. 1, and Rask’s poor play against quality opponents has allowed Thomas to breathe easier.
On the other hand, Julien hasn’t been able to breathe easy. He really doesn’t know at this point how much he can trust Rask. Maybe a little more playing time early in the season would’ve paid off now for the kid, but you can’t blame Julien for riding Thomas’ hot hand to collect as many points as possible in the early going.
Rask is still very much the goaltender of the future and the guy the Bruins are going to build around through the second half of this decade. Right now though, is he just a back-up that deserves only spot starts against second-division foes? Or is more than just Thomas’ caddy and is he capable of earning Boston two points in a crucial game or two down the stretch with the division lead and first-round home-ice advantage still in doubt and first place in the conference still in reach?
If Rask were playing poorly and losing these games against inferior foes, that would be a major reason to worry. By turning his night around after a dicey first 20 minutesa gainst the Blue Jackets, Rask made his pitch for more playing time to Julien.
It’s important for the Bruins to have faith in Rask should there be an emergency situation in the postseason. How Julien divides up the goaltending assignments over the next couple weeks will tells us where Rask stands with the Bruins’ brass.