Why Tuukka Rask is more ready than ever to have Stanley Cup playoff success

Matt Kalman
April 06, 2019 - 5:34 pm

You shouldn’t worry about Tuukka Rask giving up five goals on 21 shots to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 6-3 loss at TD Garden on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both teams, a glorified exhibition game between two clubs locked into postseason position.

Because Rask isn’t worried and understood it wasn’t the type of game that's conducive to goaltenders getting into playoff form.

“Yeah, I think it’s kind of like a pond hockey game you know,” Rask said. “Guys are just saucing the pucks. It’s kind of like … I don’t know, whatever. It’s just, try not to stress about it because it doesn’t mean anything. But yeah it’s not the greatest feeling to play, especially when you’re playing against Tampa too, pretty good players.”

Those pretty good players from the Lightning achieved their individual goals. Steven Stamkos had a breakaway goal to set a new single-season career-high in points, and Nikita Kucherov had a goal and an assist to set a new record for points by a Russian-born player in a NHL season. The Lightning matched record for victories with their 62nd, tying the Detroit Red Wings from 1995-96.

None of that matters to the Bruins, who won’t see the Lightning again without getting past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round (and the Lightning getting past their first-round opponent). And Rask should be more ready than ever to tackle the playoffs because the Bruins’ goaltending time share worked to perfection.

Rask played 46 games (45 starts), his fewest amount of games in a full NHL season since he backed up Tim Thomas in 2011-12 and made 23 appearances (Rask played in 36 games of the 48-game lockout-shortened 2013 season). Rask had a .912 save percentage for the season and a .917 since Jan. 1. Meanwhile Jaroslav Halak played in 40 games and had a .922 save percentage, helping the Bruins finish third in goals allowed per game (2.54).

Although Rask will never admit that he may not have felt 100 percent ready at the outset of other postseasons, even he had to admit there’s a freshness in him right now that leaves little room for excuses should the playoffs not go the Bruins’ way.

“Oh yeah, for sure. From Day One I think it’s been like that, I felt so fresh throughout the season,” he said. “You know, like I’ve said before, I think it has benefited us that we’ve had two goalies playing and sharing the net. And I definitely felt like it’s a great opportunity to play every night I’ve played fresh.”

Coach Bruce Cassidy believes the Bruins have put Rask in the right position to succeed.

“I think he responded to the workload, I think he’s been very good this year,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know if it’d be his best season ever, it’d certainly be one of his better ones I would assume. I think he’s very fresh going into the playoffs. Some years in the past, you could ask him that, if he was or wasn’t. This year I know he is, he hasn’t been overworked. So that’s a positive, you like that out of your goaltender, especially … every team will lean on their goaltender at some point. So I think he’s responded well this year to not playing as much. He’s had good years where he’s played more.”

The day against the Lightning started out in awkward fashion. In a pregame ceremony two months in the making (and the waiting), the Bruins finally paid tribute to Rask breaking Tiny Thompson’s record for most wins in franchise history Feb. 3 against the Washington Capitals. The New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory later that day greatly overshadowed Rask’s achievement, and soon after Patrice Bergeron played his 1,000th NHL game and stole all the headlines.

Finally, at the conclusion of the Bruins’ year-end awards presentations, president Cam Neely presented Rask with an oil painting commemorating the goalie’s historic achievement.

And then came the game, with the Bruins resting one third of their expected playoff lineup and the Lightning keeping the likes of Kucherov and Stamkos in theirs. The result on the scoreboard wasn’t what Rask or Cassidy wanted, and Braydon Coburn’s goal from the blue line with 5:44 remaining in the third was certainly one Rask would never have lives down if it had happened in a game with meaning.

But the opportunity to play a couple insignificant regular-season games was part of what the Bruins played for the past six months, and Rask certainly had as big a hand in Boston’s success – second place in the Eastern Conference – as anyone, and he earned the right to not play lights out in the crease with the most important games of the year coming up in five days.

Now if a rested Rask doesn’t fare better than the one that had a .899 save percentage in the seven-game first-round win against Toronto last season, then there will be real reason to worry.

Rask’s coach, of course, had a vote of confidence for him.

“But I believe he’ll be ready to go Thursday and in good form,” Cassidy said. “But that’s why we play the games, we’ll find out.”

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