Tuukka Rask/By S. Bradley

Tuukka Rask/By S. Bradley

With alternating bouts of patience and frustration, Tuukka Rask apprenticed at Tim Thomas’ side for the better part of three seasons.

Prior to establishing himself as a NHL regular, Rask was forced to hone his craft with the Providence (AHL) farm club, even when he thought he was already talented enough to play at the sport’s highest level.

Now with Thomas disappeared from the scene, the 2013 season is supposed to be Rask’s 48-game coronation as the Bruins’ No. 1 netminder. So don’t think for a second that coach Claude Julien’s recent decision to start Anton Khudobin in consecutive games for the first time didn’t fire up Rask, who will hopefully center his energy on improving on a season that still has him sitting in the top three in goals-against average and save percentage.

Julien liked enough of what he saw from Khudobin Thursday in Ottawa, and held his nose a little watching Rask’s third period in Winnipeg last Tuesday, that he decided Saturday night was as good a time as any to give the Kazakh another start.

Considering the way things went down in the third period against the Jets – with Rask surrendering the losing goal on puck that trickled through his 5-hole to an open goal-scorer – and how Julien went out of his way to criticize the lack of a “timely” save in the defeat, Rask had every right to expect he would get a shot at redemption sooner rather than later. Instead, he was relegated to spectator against the Senators and then mop-up reliever in Toronto.

Once famous only for his milk-crate throwing incident in the minors, Rask had every right to be pissed about his benching. However, Rask’s apprenticeship with the Bruins obviously also taught him about being a team player and saying all the right things about Julien’s decisions.

“We’ll see. I like to play every game, you know, obviously,” Rask said when asked about a lack confidence in light of not starting the last two Bruins games. “But I didn’t take it too personally. I mean, I play good games, I realize that. Tough losses there. I let in two goals in Pittsburgh and Winnipeg. We lose the games but I wasn’t awful. So that shouldn’t break my confidence.”

While Rask has matured over the last several years, I still doubt his competitive fire has cooled enough for him to be taking the recent situation lightly. This is a guy who came to North America for the first time at 20 and really thought he should be manning the net in the NHL. You don’t become a first-round pick without taking every affront personally. You don’t lead the league in goals-against average and save percentage as a NHL rookie without thinking there’s no one better than you. And you don’t recover from a collapse like the one the Bruins suffered with Rask in net in 2010 without so much self confidence that you could scale the Prudential Building if that, and not stopping NHL shots, was your true calling.

One has to hope that while he was saying all the right things at his stall after practice Sunday, Rask is thinking to himself behind closed doors that there better not be any more two-game absences from the starting lineup. The best way for him to make sure there’s no another two-game Khudobin stint is to play even better. That’s where the genius of Julien’s decision might come in.

The coach said Sunday that looking at the schedule he’d hoped to buy a little more rest for Rask before another tough stretch of games that starts Monday at TD Garden with Toronto back for a rematch. Left unsaid was that the coach was probably hoping for Khudobin to get hot and put together a winning streak – something the Bruins haven’t had against teams with winning records (Florida and Washington don’t count) since March 7-11.

Although Khudobin couldn’t get the Bruins more than one win and Rask’s relief appearance probably ruined the whole concept of extra rest, Julien’s decision to sit Rask might pay off big time now as a motivator. Rask is the anointed top goaltender. He’s not only playing to prove the Bruins were right to raise him as their own after a trade with the Maple Leafs and win games for the organization, he’s also playing for a big deal. Rask is a restricted free agent this summer, and should be able to cash in with some No. 1 goaltender money.

That’s the biggest sign of Rask’s confidence in himself and belief that he’s the best. He was willing to take a one-year deal last summer and see how his first year in the post-Thomas era would pan out. So anything that cuts into Rask’s playing time and ability to shine as the No. 1 is a shot at his livelihood and financial situation as much as it is a critique on his performance as an athlete.

With just one two-day break left in the schedule, Julien will have lots of choices to make with his goaltending, weighting performance, rest and opponent strength. With a high-caliber game against Toronto Monday, Rask can take the decision-making process out of Julien’s hands.

That’s what the Bruins developed Rask to do and what he believes he can do. Statistically he’s one of the best goaltenders in the NHL this season. But there’s a gut feeling that says Rask can play even better.

The Bruins might’ve missed out on two points in Toronto, but if Rask responds the right way down the stretch here, the decision to sit him a second straight game in Toronto could be this season’s turning point.