BOSTON — The offense has come and gone at times this season. The defense has its lapses here and there. On some nights, like Thursday night, you can search far and wide, with no success, for the skating game.
The one constant through the first third of the Bruins’ season, however, has been the play of goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Finnish netminder finished off another gem Thursday night with a couple of big saves late to lead the B’s 2-1 overtime win over Ottawa.
Rask stood especially tall with just under two minutes to play in overtime when he stoned Kyle Turris in the slot for the save of the game. Just 27 seconds later, Patrice Bergeron tipped home the game-winner, yet another game backboned by the solid play of the Boston goalie.
In the process, Rask put the finishing touches on a brilliant month of February, a month in which getting the puck by the goaltender happened about as frequently as the Bruins scored a power-play goal. Rask made eight starts in the calendar’s shortest month going 7-0-1 with a sparkling 1.38 goals against average.
Claude Julien has put trust in Rask, and the goalie has responded with an effort that confirms his status as a No. 1 goaltender in the league. Julien has said on multiple occasions that part of mastering the goaltending balancing act means making sure the No. 1 can get into a groove. It’s clear right now that Rask is in that groove.
“I call him Felix the Cat because he’s so quick,” B’s forward Nathan Horton said after Rask’s 30-save effort Thursday night. “He’s been doing it all year, every game. He’s a Shooter Tutor with no holes. He’s such a great guy and you want to see him do well, and obviously he’s been amazing this season.”
It’s all part of the maturity process for Rask, who continues to develop into one of the game’s best goalies. His physical skills — size, agility, quickness — those are all apparent within minutes of watching him between the pipes. But what’s been the biggest thing for Rask to develop is the mental aspect of goaltending. Sometimes, it’s just all about growing up. That’s something that his head coach says can take a while with goalies.
“I’ve always said for a goaltender to be effective in this league, it’s important that he has some maturity,” Julien explained. “It does take a little longer. That’s my personal view again. I’ve always felt goaltenders take a little longer [than skaters]. ”
Of course, that maturity comes mainly through getting out on the ice and working through adverse situations and learning how to deal with success and failure alike. Luckily for Rask and the Bruins, he was able to watch and see Tim Thomas become one of the game’s elite goaltenders.
“I think he’s been fortunate to be here.” Julien said. “I think we’re fortunate to have had him here with a good goaltender like Tim. So he’s learned the ropes the right way. He’s never been put in a tough pressure situation where he was allowed to grow at a decent rate. Now he’s ready for it.”
But at the same time, you have to think that a few years as a backup helped motivate a player like Rask, who is one of the most competitive, if not the most competitive player in the Boston dressing room.
“He was ready for it, and we’re all confident, and we all knew he was [confident too], so we’re not surprised,” Bergeron said. “He’s not [lacking confidence] and that’s good. I think when you know you’re capable of doing the job and you have the abilities to be our No. 1, you want to thrive on your chance, and he’s doing that right now. He grabbed it, and he’s running with it.”
Of course, the transformation won’t be entirely complete until Rask can prove he can do this in the playoffs. His meltdown against the Flyers in the 2010 playoffs may seem like a long time ago, but it will be a major storyline once the playoffs arrive. The questions will resurface and Rask will get another chance to prove what he’s learned and how he’s matured.
Until then, however, Rask has taken it upon himself to make sure that team efforts like Thursday night’s, where the Bruins didn’t look particularly sharp and were one bad bounce from going home with a loss. Rask wouldn’t let that happen, though, another sign of a No. 1 goalie coming into his own.
The job was his coming into the season, and through a third of the season, and he hasn’t disappointed. Quite simply, he’s grabbed it, and he’s running with it.