Anderson: Bruins need Khudobin more than Rask right now

Ty Anderson
November 28, 2017 - 5:14 am

Greg M. Cooper

Tuukka Rask was not the biggest problem for the Bruins on Sunday.

At the same time, though, it’s tough to definitively say that Rask belongs in the crease when the Bruins play host to the East-best Lightning on Wednesday.

That’s because he does not.

It would be nice to see if Rask, who remains a must-contribute piece to the B’s success both in the regular season and postseason should they make it, can continue to round into form after a solid 32-of-35 performance against the Oilers. (Rask could’ve made another save or two, but the issues were clearly in front of the crease, which has become an alarming theme of the season.) But another Rask start would also mean sitting Khudobin for the second straight contest, meaning that his next start would come with a full week-plus in between games. I’m not sure you want to do that to a goaltender that’s posting a .945 save percentage over his last four starts (all wins for the Bruins).

And the Bruins, despite their recent surge, do not sit in a position that allows them to run the risk of falling further behind in their race to keep pace with the Eastern Conference. Nor do they remain a team with the luxury of hoping Rask successfully fights his way out of this or that the Bruins find a way to score some goals for their should-be No. 1.

It’s a situation that’s made life awfully tricky for Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy.

“We can, of course,” Cassidy said when asked if he could go back to Rask, a goalie that’s dropped all but three of his 13 decisions to date this season, on Wednesday. “We generally don’t announce that this far ahead of time. Tuukka [Rask] – he’s a world-class goaltender. He’s going to get his wins. Hopefully whoever is in there Wednesday, we are going to get a good chance to win. We have a good hockey team coming here, so we’ll rest [Monday] and then get back to work Tuesday. We’ll have a better idea then.”

But the tricky truth that Cassidy wishes he could openly acknowledge in that quote is that the Bruins have a better chance to win with Khudobin in net. That goes beyond the bare numbers of Rask’s .899 save percentage compared to Khudobin’s .932, too.

For whatever reason, the Bruins have averaged just 2.15 goals per game in Rask starts versus 3.44 goals per game in Khudobin starts. The team itself looked at its absolute worst in Rask’s latest start, with just 11 shots through the first two periods of play, and against a moribund Oiler team that had no business winning in Boston, no less.

When it’s Khudobin, however, there seems to be a ‘looseness’ to the B’s game that allows (or forces) them to take offensive chances and operate with the speed that’s kept them afloat this season. It’s the whole chicken-egg thing when you’re talking about the reasons for this, too; Do the Bruins play more aggressive when the at-times-reckless Khudobin is in net because they feel as though they have to given his unpredictability, or does Khudobin play more aggressive because the B’s dictate the pace of play?

Cassidy, for what it’s worth, does not believe that his B’s team plays any noticeably different when it’s the struggling Rask in net compared to the thriving Khudobin.

“I don’t think the players, it ever crosses their mind who’s in net,” Cassidy said when I asked about the mental mindset of the team in front of Rask versus Khudobin. “I mean, we got two in New Jersey, two in LA. We just play, and we’re in a lot of close games. It’s just who we are right now. We’d like to extend leads better. I thought we did it against Pittsburgh, a very good team came back and then we got it again. So, no I don’t think our players think about that, ‘Well, it’s Tuukka tonight, we owe him run support, or it’s Dobby.’ We just play, and [Sunday], I just thought we lacked energy, and I don’t know if it would’ve mattered who was in net. We just didn’t have a lot of jump.”

But the Bruins never seem to lack energy when it comes to Khudobin starts. And a lot of those starts have come in worse situations, especially when you consider the lengthy list of injuries this season, and his last start was on a post-holiday matinee. In that game, the B’s came out roaring, and even found a way to let Khudobin off the hook after blowing a two-goal lead, thanks to a David Pastrnak breakaway goal in the third period.

It also helps that Khudobin, while adventurous, has made the extra save in basically all of his starts. He’s only had one game with real trouble closing out periods thus far, as two late-period goals against in a Nov. 10 overtime loss in Toronto stand as the two goals he’s allowed in the final two minutes of a period this season. And even when he hasn’t been on stop of his game (he’s allowed four goals within five minutes of a B’s goal scored this season), the Bruins have been there for an extra goal or two of comfort.  That’s evident by Khudobin’s 7-0-2 record and the Bruins having scored six different ‘response goals’ within three and a half minutes of a goal against Khudobin this season.

It seems that it’s been the complete opposite for Rask, even with the league’s third-best save percentage when shorthanded (.926), as he’s allowed six goals in the final two minutes of a period, including three that held as game-winning goals against. This has happened while Rask has not surrendered as many goals in the five-minute stretch following a Boston goal (he’s allowed just three in this regard) as Khudobin. The Bruins, meanwhile, have scored just three of those ‘response goals’ for Rask despite Rask playing nearly 200 more minutes and allowing 16 more goals than Khudobin this season. (Those numbers are important in the sense that they mean that the Black and Gold have had plenty of opportunities to help their goalie out with a quick response.)

Incapable of getting help from himself or the team in front of him, it’s a toxic mix that’s left Rask on the wrong end of too many ‘one shot’ or ‘one goal’ kind of nights, and spending his nights fitting himself for a baseball cap versus a goalie mask.

“That’s what it’s come down to lately, that one good shot, and we’re not able to get the goal for [Rask],” Cassidy acknowledged. “Or for us too, it’s not just about him, right?

“It’s about the whole group.”

A group that, strangely enough, needs a Khudobin more than a Rask right now.

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