Rask has sat for a season-high seven straight games since the last time the Bruins and Sabres met in Buffalo back on Dec. 15. It’s hard to fault the Bruins for riding Tim Thomas as much as they have, as he does lead the NHL with a 1.74 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and five shutouts.
But there is a limit to how much the 36-year-old can play, and even Thomas admitted he was tired after playing games in Florida and Tampa on back-to-back nights this week, but Claude Julien still came back with him in Atlanta on Thursday.
The Bruins do have a solid alternative though, as Rask just happens to be the guy who led the NHL in GAA and save percentage last year after unseating Thomas as the club’s starter. Now after a 16-day layoff, Rask will finally get a chance to show what he can do again.
“We felt [Thomas] was ready to go [against Atlanta] and our plan was to use Tuukka in Buffalo,” Julien said Friday. “Because we didn’t practice [Wednesday] it might have been a tough situation for Tuukka to get in.”
It still won’t be an easy situation for Rask, as he’s sure to be a bit rusty with so much time between game action. But the Bruins will need him to carry more of the load as the season goes on, and to do that they’ll need to give him better support at both ends of the ice than they have in his limited opportunities so far this season.
Rask comes in with just a 2-7-1 record, even though his .927 save percentage is not far off the .931 mark he led the league with last season. He’s 2.57 GAA is significantly higher than last year’s NHL-best 1.97, but it’s still good enough to deserve a better fate than he’s had so far.
That’s where the rest of the Bruins come in. The Bruins have the league’s best team GAA at 2.03 this year, and much of that is due to Thomas’ spectacular play. But Thomas also hasn’t been barraged by shots as consistently as Rask has.
In his nine starts, Rask has faced 35 or more shots in all but two. Thomas, meanwhile, has seen less than 35 shots in 17 of his 27 starts. The Bruins need to do a better job of cutting down on the scoring chances on Rask, especially as he eases back into action after his long layoff.
Boston also needs to give Rask a little more of a cushion to work with. So far this season, the Bruins are scoring almost a full goal less in front of Rask (2.11 goals a game in his starts) than when Thomas plays (3.07).
The Bruins have also fallen behind regularly when Rask is playing, giving up the first goal in all but three of his appearances. Rask earned his only wins in two of the games when staked to a lead, with the only game he’s lost when Boston scored first being a 3-2 setback in his last start in Buffalo.
The good news is that Buffalo ranks just 20th in the league with an average of 2.57 goals a game and the Sabres are just 23rd on the power play at 16.2 percent (23-142). They also just lost star center Derek Roy, who is out for the season after suffering a torn left quad tendon just before Christmas. Roy’s 35 points are 10 more than anyone else on Buffalo’s roster this year.
The Sabres are expected to get Tim Connolly back from a broken nose and last year’s Calder winner Tyler Myers back from the flu on Saturday, and reigning Vezina winner Ryan Miller won’t make it easy for the Bruins at the other end of the ice.
But the Bruins must find a way to get a few shots past Miller while limiting Buffalo’s chances on Rask. That’s vital not just to earning two points in this matchup, but in helping to restore Rask’s confidence as Boston will need contributions from both of their talented goaltenders the rest of the way this season.